As a way of becoming acquainted with more obscure filmmakers, a boxset is a perfect place to begin. The new release from Eureka in their Masters of Cinema range is a collection from Shohei Imamura, a director very deserving of that title, and perhaps one only familiar to the most devoted of cineastes.
One of the most influential Japanese filmmakers to have emerged in post-war Japan, Imamura’s films are notable for both their varied subject matter and distinct directorial vision. Over his career, Imamura tackled different styles and genres including comedy and documentary, melodrama and serial killer, but certain themes prevailed throughout all his work. A childhood spent in the shadow of World War II and an early dalliance dealing cigarettes in the black market inspired a trend towards anti-American sentiment and a pre-occupation with the lower classes.
Debut film Stolen Desires in 1958 is without doubt an impressive beginning, the story following a troupe of traveling actors and detailing their interconnecting lives in what could lazily be described as an early rom-com. What is clear in Stolen Desires is Imamura’s early interest in the lower levels of Japanese society and recurring motif that life never quite plays out how you want or expect it to. Pigs and Battleships from 1961 saw Imamura continue to develop his style and tone with a film that saw his entertainment company employers Nikkatsu baulk at what they considered to be too obviously anti-American. If an enforced two-year sabbatical was intended as a reprimand it failed as Imamura’s next films, The Insect Woman (included here) and Unholy Desire, only confirmed his overriding vision.
Despite containing films typical of Imamura’s unique style, this set is by no means definitive. For one of only a handful of directors to have won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice, it is perhaps strange that only one of those, The Ballad of Narayama is included. Other Palme d’Or winner The Eel and Black Rain, considered one of his greatest works, would require further investment. With a total of eight films in dual format, several interviews including one with Imamura himself, and additional multimedia content, it would seem churlish to complain too much.
Ask film fans to think of a Japanese director and the first few names offered will likely include Akira Kurosawa, Hayoa Miyazaki and Ishiro Honda. Shohei Imamura may not be as well-known as some of his illustrious compatriots but he is just as important in Japan’s cinematic history. In a career that spanned five decades, and one of the pioneers of Japanese New Wave, Imamura’s films reward the viewer repeatedly with their expressive style and varied subject matter. One or two films aside, this set offers a superb insight into the great man’s work and as such is a worthy addition to any collection.
Special Features: Interviews and introductions / Audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns / CD featuring PDF booklets
THE SHOHEI IMAMURA MASTERPIECE COLLECTION / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: SHOHEI IMAMURA / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: KEN OGATA, SACHIKO HIDARI, NINGEN JOHATSU / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW