A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

Sachiko Hidari in The Insect Woman
Tome Matsuki: Sachiko Hidari
Nobuko: Jitsuko Yoshimura
Karasawa: Seizaburo Kawazu
Chuji: Kazuo Kitamura
En: Sumie Sasaki
Midori: Masumi Harukawa
Madam: Tanie Kitabayashi

Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe, Shohei Imamura
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Film editing: Mutsuo Tanji
Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi

The Insect Woman sounds like a horror movie, and in a sense it is: It's the horror of 20th century Japanese history as seen through the eyes of a woman, Tome Matsuki. She is explicitly, and perhaps a little heavy-handedly, likened to an insect by the way Shohei Imamura opens and closes his film. It starts with a close-up of a beetle, scurrying across the ground and then trying to climb a crumbling mound of dirt. It ends with Tome struggling to climb a hill, carrying a satchel on her back and wearing flimsy wooden geta, which eventually fall apart and leave her walking through the mud in her socks. She is, like the beetle, a portrait of blind determination. And that determination, a survival instinct as strong as the beetle's, is what gets her through everything that befalls her in the film. Born in a squalid farming village to a woman known for her promiscuity, she is raised mainly by Chuji, her somewhat mentally challenged stepfather -- who also becomes her lover. She calls him "Papa," as she will later call her lover "Father." When war comes, she goes to work in a factory but is called home by the villagers, claiming that her father is dying, a lie to bring her back so she can become the mistress of their landlord. He abandons her and leaves her pregnant, and when the child is born her mother insists that since it's a girl it should be killed. But Tome keeps her and names her Nobuko. Eventually, Nobuko will also share Chuji's bed as well as that of Tome's lover, Karasawa, both with Tome's approval. Tome meets Karasawa in Tokyo, where she becomes a union organizer, a maid, a prostitute, and eventually the manager of her own staff of call girls. All of this is told in the most matter-of-fact way possible: Imamura never sanitizes or glamorizes or sentimentalizes Tome's behavior. It is what it is, he suggests: a way of getting through life. Even a setback like going to jail doesn't deter Tome. The film is held together by Sachiko Hidari's astonishing performance, in which she ages from teenager to a woman in her waning middle ages without obvious makeup tricks. Imamura's insistence on location shooting gives the film a documentary quality as well as a sense of life closing in on his characters: There is, for example, a horrifying scene that takes place in the home of Midori, one of Tome's friends, in which Tome, in the foreground, is distracted by the sound of Midori and a man making love, while in the background Midori's small daughter by an American serviceman climbs up on a chair by the stove on which the stew Tome is making is simmering. Although the focus is on Tome, we can clearly see the child as she imitates Tome's cooking and then knocks the pot from the stove. Although the little girl is scalded to death, everyone including Midori takes it in stride. Imamura's title in Japanese translates to Entomological Chronicle of Japan, which expresses perfectly the director's detached treatment of his characters: bugs viewed through a magnifying glass.

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