This weekend, disregard journalistic neutrality with the documentaries of Shohei Imamura



Imamura (center) in A Man Vanishes (1967)
  • Imamura (center) in A Man Vanishes (1967)
It's already a great year for nonfiction cinema in Chicago. On Sunday—only days after concluding its Jean Rouch retrospective—the Gene Siskel Film Center begins a two-week series devoted to Japanese director Shohei Imamura's documentaries. These films display as much creativity as Rouch's in their approach to the nonfiction form—and an even greater disregard for journalistic neutrality. Rouch used the term provocation to describe his method of creating real-life events in order to film them, but Imamura's documentaries are acts of provocation in a literal sense. The most shocking of these, In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (1971), climaxes with the director getting three of the title subjects drunk so that they'll speak casually about atrocities they committed during World War II. (There are comparably jaw-dropping moments in the five other docs screening the series.) Imamura doesn't try to defend his unorthodox methods or distance himself from the horrifying results; in fact he appears onscreen throughout his films, often shoving a microphone into an interviewee's face. Fighting fire with fire, Imamura confronts the ugliness of Japanese history with deliberately untidy filmmaking.

Of course this trailblazing director approached narrative cinema no differently. Starting with his 1961 breakthrough Pigs and Battleships and continuing to his final masterpiece Dr. Akagi (1998), Imamura employed cinema as a means to shake viewers from their amnesia about Japanese history and their complacency about the Japanese present. His protagonists often came from the underclass, abusive backgrounds, or both (after Kenji Mizoguchi, he's likely the leading Japanese filmmaker on the subject of prostitution). In his movies, brutality occurs frequently and casually—though rarely gracefully—as if it were the natural state of human affairs and civil society was merely a pretense.

Imamura wasn't unique in his cynicism. Like the other directors of so-called Japanese New Wave (like Seijun Suzuki, Yoshishige Yoshida, and the recently departed Nagisa Oshima), Imamura was old enough to have memories of World War II but wasn't old enough to have fought in it. He remembered Japan's attempt at imperial conquest but viewed that period through the lens of its ruinous defeat. More significantly, he and the other New Wave filmmakers continued to see traces of imperial-era conformism in the postwar era. Imamura's brutish, reckless-looking films not only attacked Japan's rigid social hierarchy—they exhibited a nonconformist mindset that stood in defiance of that order.

It's worth stressing that Imamura's 60s features only looked reckless. The director was in fact an obsessive researcher who aimed for strict realism in social portraits. This combination of meticulous mise-en-scene and the seemingly spontaneous performances and camerawork create the sense that real life is being invaded, even violated, by cinema. This feeling also pervades the documentaries, which are as much about Imamura's role in uncovering forgotten lives as they are about those lives themselves. His first nonfiction film, A Man Vanishes (1967), is the most self-reflexive, prompting the viewer to question how much of the film is genuinely real; that movie also ends, famously, with Imamura declaring on camera that he has failed in his project. The subsequent TV documentaries practically invite criticisms of voyeurism, with Imamura's cinematographers often filming the intimate interviews from several yards away and zooming in to the action as though performing surveillance work.

Karayuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute
  • Karayuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute
Imamaura's onscreen demeanor in these films is blunt, nonjudgmental, and sometimes even compassionate. In his final documentary, Karayuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute (1975), the director's clearly enamored with his subject, a 74-year-old who had been forced into prostitution as a young woman and shipped around Japanese business strongholds in southeast Asia. (That film plays next weekend.) As in the extraordinary Unreturned Soldiers diptych, Imamura extends quiet patience towards his subject, encouraging her to reclaim the humanity that had been stolen in the wake of Japan's imperial hubris.

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