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THE INSECT WOMAN
Blu-ray. Eureka.

The Insect WomanShohei Imamura’s acclaimed drama from 1963 has been hard to see on these shores, and so this new edition as part of the Masters of Cinema series is most welcome. A bleak yet compelling study of the life of one woman, it’s refreshingly non-judgemental and unflinching in its approach, being both social realism and powerful melodrama in one.

Opening in 1918 with the birth of Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari), The Insect Woman follows her life over four decades as she grows up in the hard world of rural pre-war Japan before ending up after the war in the big city, where – after several setbacks where she is the victim of exploitation and abuse – she finds work as a prostitute. Already hardened by life’s experiences, she quickly uses life’s opportunities to become a Madam, controlling her girls with the same ruthlessness that she was once controlled, and inevitably suffers the same downfall. Meanwhile, it seems that her daughter may be about to follow in her footsteps.

Imamura rushes through the first half of Tome’s life in the first hour of the film – some periods covering in just a few minutes, with freeze-frame, still images and voice over effectively used to show the passage of time, and then takes the second hour of the film to explore her ‘corruption’ (if you want to see it that way), as she becomes the same as the people who had previously abused her.

The Insect WomanThis is a film with a dark centre and some challenging moments, not least of which is the uncomfortable, pseudo-incestuous relationship between Tome and her overly protective father. There’s no room for sentiment here – life and death, particularly in the rural village of her birth, are intimately connected (much as in Imamura's later The Ballad of Narayama), and the grim reality of her existence is never glossed over. That the film doesn’t become some grim, barely watchable kitchen sink drama (as it almost certainly would in the hands of a British director) is tribute both to Imamura’s sense of drama and his central character, brilliantly portrayed by Hidari who brings a real sense of honesty and empathy to what is often a difficult to like person.

Shot entirely on location, the film has an authentically claustrophobic feel, the drama often taking place in shadow, giving a striking visual feel to the action. The result is a visually impressive, emotionally engaging film that I suspect will linger in your mind for some time after viewing.

This new edition has a pretty substantial extra feature – an early movie by Imamura, Nishi-Ginza Station, made in 1958. This is rather like a light, fluffy dessert to follow the hearty meal of The Insect Woman – at just 52 minutes long, it’s a slight comedy about a hen-pecked husband who daydreams about his military life on a South Sea Island and takes advantage of his wife going away for the weekend to attempt (and inevitably fail) to have an affair, encouraged by his lecherous best friend. It’s a nice, lightweight and insubstantial comedy that is a strictly commercial production, and while not exactly important, it’s a very welcome addition to this package.

Also included is a 21-minute interview with Imamura from Japanese TV that reveals some good background information to The Insect Woman.

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)

 

 

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