Obit: Imamura Shohei

Markus Nornes amnornes at
Thu Jun 1 09:12:23 EDT 2006

 From the NYT: 

May 31, 2006

Shohei Imamura, 79, Japanese Filmmaker, Is Dead

Shohei Imamura, one of the most significant filmmakers of Japan's  
postwar generation, whose works include "Black Rain" and two top- 
prize winners at Cannes, died yesterday in Tokyo. He was 79.

The cause was liver cancer, his son Hirosuke told The Mainichi Daily  

Born into an upper-middle-class family in Tokyo in 1926, Mr. Imamura  
was often grouped with Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki and Masahiro  
Shinoda as a founder of the Japanese New Wave, which emerged in the  
late 1950's and early 60's to shake tradition-bound Japanese cinema.

Mr. Imamura met Mr. Oshima and Mr. Shinoda when all three were  
enrolled in the assistant directors program at Shochiku studios. Mr.  
Imamura was first assigned to Yasujiro Ozu, whom he assisted on three  
films, including the classic "Tokyo Story" (1953). But Mr. Imamura  
rejected the careful compositions and noble, self-sacrificing  
characters of Ozu's films, preferring to show the chaotic reality of  
postwar Japan.

He found a more congenial mentor in the director Yuzo Kawashima,  
whose taste for stories of the working class had already made him an  
outsider at the aristocratic Shochiku. Soon, both men moved to  
Shochiku's less conservative rival, Nikkatsu studios, where Mr.  
Imamura quickly rose through the ranks, first becoming a screenwriter  
for Kawashima, then a director in his own right.

Mr. Imamura's first four films — "Stolen Desire," "Nishi Ginza  
Station," "Endless Desire" (all 1958) and "My Second Brother" (1959)  
— were studio assignments. He considered his first personal film to  
be "Pigs and Battleships" (1961), a scathing burlesque set in a  
Japanese port town dominated by American forces and based in part on  
his own experiences as a black marketeer.

The film contains most of the seeds of Mr. Imamura's mature work: the  
black-and-white widescreen frames throb with an animalistic vitality,  
and his protagonists are unabashedly amoral and self-centered,  
concerned only with personal survival. For Mr. Imamura, these were  
the positive traits of an island nation of limited resources. "The  
Insect Woman" (1963) follows Tome (Sachiko Hidari) from childhood  
through a successful career as a prostitute and madam. "The  
Pornographers" (1966), subtitled "An Introduction to Anthropology,"  
satirizes tight Japanese families: an impotent maker of stag movies  
lusts after his teenage stepdaughter.

With "The Profound Desire of the Gods" (1968) Mr. Imamura turned a  
tiny island populated by an incestuous family into a corrosive  
metaphor for Japanese isolationism. An expensive film, it proved to  
be a box office failure, and for the next several years, he  
concentrated on a film school he had founded, and on documentaries,  
still following his favorite themes. This period produced "The  
History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess" (1970) and "The  
Making of a Prostitute" (1975).

He returned to fiction filmmaking in 1979 with "Vengeance Is Mine,"  
one of the first films to take a serial killer as a hero.  
"Eijanaika" ("Why Not?," 1981) remains an epic vision of Japan in the  
1860's, as the country reluctantly opened to the West.

After "Eijanaika," Mr. Imamura seemed to cool down and scale back his  
films. "The Ballad of Narayama" (1983), a remake of a famous 1958  
heart-tugger, approached academicism with its classical compositions  
and attention to period detail: Mr. Imamura was rewarded at Cannes  
with his first Palme d'Or, the top award. He received the Japanese  
equivalent of the Oscar, the Kinema Junpo Award, for "Black  
Rain" (1989), a somber study of Hiroshima.

With his final three features, Mr. Imamura regained his subversive  
sense of humor, and his sometimes clinical detachment from his  
characters turned to a warm, if amused, affection. "The Eel" (1997,  
the winner of his second Palme d'Or), "Dr. Akagi" (1998) and "Warm  
Water Under a Red Bridge" (2001) were relatively calm and contemplative.

But Mr. Imamura also found time during this period to sponsor the  
work of Takashi Miike, whose notoriously violent, overtly sadistic  
films took Mr. Imamura's assumptions about humanity to new extremes.  
Mr. Imamura's last work was a short contribution to "September 11,"  
an anthology film about the worldwide effects of the attacks.

The director is survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons, one of  
whom, under the name Daisuke Tengan, collaborated on the screenplays  
for his father's last three features.
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