Film Reviews

Survivor Ballads: Three Films By Shohei Imamura – Blu-ray Review

One of the key figures of the Japanese New Wave, Shohei Imamura holds a celebrated career that has been considered one which “probed the lower depths of the Japanese consciousness”. Never shy of filling his frame with the lower end of the class system, these three survivor ballads do not exercise any caution in showing the baser urges of Japanese society.

These films are not merely chances to show far eastern hanky panky, however; they are deeply involved with the hearts of their characters. One cannot fault their sincerity. In 1983’s The Ballard of Narayama, a life-affirming exploration of a rural community who perform the legendary practice of obasute, a character mentions that “In life, we can’t rely solely on our emotions”. Despite this, the film craftily highlights that while we may not rely exclusively on our emotions, they cannot be betrayed.

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A slightly inspired imagining of Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 period film, Imamura’s rendition tells the narrative of a 69-year-old woman who is getting closer to the age limit the village imposes on its elders. Once someone reaches the age of 70, they are taken to the summit of Oak Mountain and left to perish. The woman, who still feels strong in her bones, spends much of her last days doing what she can to get her sons married.

For a film which heaps a hefty amount of toil on its characters, Narayama is full of broad humour, beauty, and ample amounts of amorous exploits. The cold world that is portrayed is indeed brutal. One extended burial sequence involving a thieving family is shocking in its starkness, yet throughout much of the film’s indifference Imamura draws warmth from hidden compartments. Death is looked at with an unblinking eye, yet elements like sex are looked upon with far less taboo than some of the more cynical encounters seen within mainstream avenues. Scenes are often contrasted with inserts of animals and insects simply living their life. Much like the humans of the piece. Highlighting how nature takes its course.

The course of the characters we see here is far different from what we see in western society. Imamura brings pragmatism and complexity to matters that a viewer may not be used to. However, through the family’s dynamics and bickering, as well as the film’s magical realist final segment, it finds a beautiful and arresting connection. It is a film in which characters make decisions that you may well disagree with – and yet find fascinating to observe.

Zegen, a 1987 black comedy, tells the wild story of Japanese immigrant Iheiji Muraoka, who built brothels for the Japanese military. Out of the three films, it is the least notable, yet it is still broadly funny in its more farcical moments. Without knowledge of Japanese history in the early 20th century it is easy for the film to sometimes feel rather dry.

However, this tale of a penniless barber turned white-suited playboy is not without its moments. Its best gag involving Muraoka’s barber career is almost throwaway yet sums up the absurdity of the character’s endeavour of selling sex “for the empire”. In a world which can still whip itself into patriotic furore at the drop of a hat, as well as hold knotty attitudes towards female bodies (see Onlyfans), Zegen is a sometimes darkly amusing combination of both.

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Black Rain (1989) holds the toughest material of the three. Based on Masuji Ibuse’s novel, it centres around the survival of a family living in the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, jumping between the harrowing day of the event and five years after the attack. The film’s harshness is somewhat ramped up by the artistic choice to shoot the film in black and white as opposed to colour. We see the radioactive Black Rain of the title fall upon Yoshiko Tanaka’s Yasuko in a way that perhaps would not feel so severe if in colour. The black and white also helps serve the period in a profoundly authentic way. So much of the footage we see from the era is in this form, the film short circuits the brain. It’s a film which feels of the time it depicts, not of the ’80s in which it was filmed.

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With the western world’s focus on the allied forces, Black Rain is indeed a shock to the system, highlighting a Japanese society which somehow blames itself for the nuclear fallout; the event that shatters the social lives of a community in a way that can never be fully repaired. As we watch the Shizuma family try to continue living the way they did before, the reverberations of the bomb continue to fracture their world. Friends lives are shortened.

Each family member lives in fear of when radiation sickness will take them. The cloud of the aftermath looms large over Yasusko’s marriage prospects, with chosen suitors dismissed due to the uncertainty that the radiation. This is turn has characters make decisions almost based on how guilty they feel by being caught in the blast, as well as arguments over status. The film’s power lies in the bomb’s ability to cause uncertainty with all that have been touched by it.

All three films are crafted with a precise direction from its creator. Even the comic folly of Zegen asks the viewer to give the film a certain amount of solid attention. The Blu-ray extra on Black Rain has renowned Japanese director Takashi Miike comment on Imamura’s demanding approach to his work. However, it is difficult to argue against the results in each film. From the terrifying effects of the nuclear explosion in Black Rain to the sobering last moments which occur in The Ballad of Narayama, each film is effective in its aims.

This trilogy of 80’s films which display endurance in raw and unblinking terms, also emphasise the topics and themes which filmmakers such as Imamura were tackling during the flourish of the Japanese New Wave of the ’50s through to the’70s. Films which looked to grapple with attitudes to things such as sex and radicalism in the face of very traditional and stoic culture. Described as a survival trilogy, the films’ depiction of the periods and cultural clashes between the characters (and perhaps the viewer themselves) help illustrate what exactly has survived within the country.

Often shot in unbroken long/medium shots, with the camera rarely moving without a thorough purpose, it is hard not to be even slightly reminded of the still manner of Yasujirō Ozu. Within the movies themselves, however, there is turbulence which lends itself more to the intruding attitudes of elsewhere. These three films are period pieces and yet they hum with an energy of the decade in which they were made, all stamped with a clear signature style and rich storytelling.

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Each of the three films has in-depth audio commentaries from Jasper Sharp and appreciations from Tony Rayns. Black Rain holds the most extras overall with features such as the Takashi Miike interview and an alternative colourised ending of the movie, which Imamura did not wish to cut, but sits awkwardly when considered next to the movie’s beautifully ambiguous finish. As with so many of these Arrow boutique offerings, the 1080p transfer of the films is of superb quality. The Ballad of Narayama is the standout here. Every frame is beautifully composed with the transfer of the mountain terrain wonderfully textured and full of detail.

Shohei Imamura may not be a directorial household name to today’s circle of filmgoers, but the intimate and potent set of movies delivered by the Arrow team would be a perfect place to start.

Survivor Ballads: Three Films By Shohei Imamura is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

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