The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki) [DVD]
Director : Shohei Imamura
Screenplay : Keiji Hasebe and Shohei Imamura
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Emiko Aizawa (Rui), Masumi Harukawa (Midori), Sachiko Hidari (Tome Matsuki), Emiko Higashi (Kane), Daizaburo Hirata (Kamibayashi), Seizaburô Kawazu (Karasawa), Teruko Kishi (Rin), Tanie Kitabayashi (Madam), Kazuo Kitamura (Chuji), Asao Koike (Sawakichi), Jitsuko Yoshimura (Nobuko)
The Insect Woman, the Anglicized title of Shohei Imamura’s Nippon konchuki, is in no way a direct translation and, in fact, sounds like a Roger Corman-produced science-fiction movie. The original title translates more directly to Entomological Chronicles of Japan, which more closely reflects the film’s use of a character’s struggling life journey as a metaphor for the history of 20th-century Japan. Like his mentor, the great Yasujiro Ozu, Imamura was deeply concerned with the nature of what it means to be Japanese, although he went about exploring that question from a much different perspective, replacing Ozu’s rigid formalism and focus on the deteriorating middle class with a more eclectic visual style and fascination with the dark underbelly of Japanese society.
In his previous film, Pigs and Battleships (1961), Imamura had shown both a fascination with and a deep respect for strong, resilient women who are able to secure their own identity and place in a society that constantly wants to reduce them to obedient wives, mothers, and servants. In The Insect Woman, he takes that fascination to an extreme place, giving us the character of Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari), who is born a bastard child in a small farming village in 1918 and subsequently struggles against numerous obstacles during the tumultuous decades leading to the present tense (the film is marked by important historical milestones, including Japan’s surrender in 1945 and the 1959 television broadcast of the royal wedding of Crown Prince Akihito to Shoda Michiko).
Early on everything is working against her, starting with her commoner status that is devalued even further by her mother’s disreputable nature (no one knows who her father is because her mother has slept with everyone in the village) and the sexual molestation she endures from her slow-witted stepfather Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura). As an adult, Tome attempts to integrate herself into proper Japanese society, but a failed marriage and bearing a child out of wedlock keeps her constantly at the social margins. She finds solace in a church where she can pour out her grief and regret (the one time we see her do so), and she eventually finds work as a maid at an inn that doubles as a brothel. Although she is at first appalled by the nature of her workplace, she eventually comes to accept it and even embrace it as she manipulates those around her to rise to the top and replace the Madam (Tanie Kitabayashi) who runs it. Throughout the film Tome proves to be infinitely adaptable, and watching her is like watching different characters; her malleability at times makes her different incarnations difficult to reconcile except via their necessity for her survival.
The film’s opening shot is a close-up image of a beetle struggling to move up a mound of dirt, and in this image Imamura establishes both the film’s narrative preoccupation (Tome’s struggle to ascend in some way in a society organized against her) and its thematic underpinnings (the ultimately futile nature of such an endeavor). It is not surprising that Imamura ends the film with a similar sequence that finds Tome, now an adult aged beyond her years, struggling up a muddy road toward the village where she was born. Circularity is an important motif in the film, which inherently suggests a kind of universal futility. Just as Tome watches the prostitutes at the inn being manipulated and cheated by Madam, so she manipulates and cheats them once she is in power despite her early indications that she would be fair. Similarly, Tome’s daughter, Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), will follow in her mother’s footsteps by doing anything she can to ensure her own survival, including at one point stealing her mother’s lover/benefactor while Tome is in prison, an act that would seem to incur Tome’s wrath but instead creates a kind of warped pride; like mother, like daughter.
Even moreso than Imamura’s previous films, The Insect Woman revels at times in grotesquerie that arguably detracts from the film’s larger picture. Tome’s relationship with her stepfather is perverse enough, but do we really need not one but two sequences in which she suckles him from her breast, first as a young woman because her infant isn’t drinking enough and her breasts hurt from being too full and later as an adult to appease him on his death bed? Imamura was always interested in pushing boundaries and depicting the dark corners of Japanese society that other artists left alone, which is certainly the case in The Insect Woman. His view is ultimately an odd mixture of compassion and cool distance, underscored by the mixture of uneasy camerawork and random freeze-frame transitions that often isolate a moment of great emotional turmoil. It is slow going at times and somewhat confusing because Imamura and his coscreenwriter Keiji Hasebe (with whom he worked on two other films) tend to jump back and forth in time, but it is nevertheless an intriguing, albeit rough-edged, portrait of the struggles of womanhood in modern Japan.
|The Insect Woman Criterion Collection DVD|
|The Insect Woman is available exclusively as part of the three-disc “Pigs, Pimps, and Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes Pigs and Battleships (1961) and Intentions of Murder (1964).|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$79.95 (box set)|
|Release Date||May 19, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion has given all three films in this box set new high-definition transfers from what appear to be the best possible elements. Both Pigs and Battleships and The Insect Woman were transferred from their original 35mm camera negatives, while Intentions of Murder was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. All three films were also put through the MTI Digital Restoration System to remove virtually all signs of age and damage in the form of nicks, dirt, and speckles. Given that the three films were made one right after the other at the same studio, they each have about the same level of technical polish, even though each has a slightly different look. While all three films were shot in black and white, they have varying levels of contrast and evidence of fading, with Pigs and Battleships looking the “grayest.” Intentions of Murder is the darkest of the three films, with plenty of blacks that are nicely rendered with only minimal traces of grain. Detail in each transfer is decent, but not particularly great, resulting in images that appear slightly soft. The original monaural soundtracks were also given careful transfers and digitally restored, giving us sound that is relatively clean, crisp, and lacking in ambient hiss or pops.|
|There are two supplements on this disc. In a 14-minute interview, film critic and historian Tony Rayns offers a lucid and informed discussion of the film and its themes. In addition there is a 21-minute interview that appears to have been shot for Japanese television some time in the early 1980s in which film critic Tadao Sato talks with Shohei Imamura about the film.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection