What I learned from Shohei Imamura's documentaries

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From Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home
  • From Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home
Reflecting on the extraordinary documentaries by Shohei Imamura that recently played at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I remembered an old Ethiopian proverb: "A cow gave birth to a fire. She wanted to lick it, but it burned her; she wanted to leave it, but she could not because it was her own child."

These works present Imamura talking to war criminals, former sex slaves, and the dispossessed people of onetime imperial strongholds. It's impressive that he would be so daring to confront these subjects in the early 1970s, when World War II—and Japan's heinous activities across southeast Asia—had ended only a generation before. More impressive still is Imamura's casual, unhysterical tone. Appearing on-screen he treats his subjects as he would family members, in effect naturalizing their stories. One never gets the feeling that Imamura is unearthing a horrible past (even though official Japanese culture generally prefers that shameful history remain buried; note that even today the government refuses to issue an apology to the Korean women forced to become "comfort women" for Japanese imperial soldiers). Rather he proceeds from the conviction that these stories are essential to the culture to which he belongs and for which he must take responsibility.

Imamura's method of locating the past within the present anticipates Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (shot in the 1970s and early 80s), an epic history of the Holocaust that employs virtually no historic images. But Lanzmann doesn't presume familiarity with his interviewees the way Imamura does. (Not to say that Lanzmann's onscreen behavior is any less courageous: his antagonistic baiting of small-town Poles who lived near death camps yet blithely ignored them result in some of the most powerful moments in cinema.) Imamura places himself among the lower depths of Japanese society and strives to see his subjects as they might see themselves.

Imamura encourages the spectator to admire the subjects for their cunning, tenacity, and brutish energy. But he doesn't let us forget that they honed these qualities through chronic victimization. This is most evident in Karayuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute, whose subject, Kikuyo Zendo, was kidnapped and forced into prostitution in Malaysia. But this theme is also implicit in the diptych In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers, despite the fact that the title subjects admit to killing thousands of people during the war. Imamura boldly suggests that his subjects had been brainwashed by imperial Japan and turned into killing machines.

In both cases the director draws attention to a great obscenity of Japanese culture: that the state considers a segment of the population to be expendable. And in both cases he responds not with outrage, but with kindness, reclaiming these cast-off souls as individuals worthy of respect, or at least a place in the culture. Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home, a follow-up to Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand, makes this theme explicit by documenting a soldier's return visit to Japan after 33 years in exile.

Has there ever been an American filmmaker so audacious as to visit a person roundly condemned by our society—say, a white supremacist or a drug pusher—and say, "No, you're one of ours; it is our collective failure that you wound up this way"?

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