Monday, February 20, 2012


The Insect Woman

Sachiko Hidari as Tome Matsuki
Kazuo Kitamura as Chuji Matsuki
Jitsuko Yoshimura as Nobuko Matsuki
Masumi Harukawa as Midori
Tanie Kitabayashi as Madam Suma
Seizaburo Kawazu as Karasawa
Hiroyuki Nagato as Matsunami

Cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda
Edited by Mutsuo Tanji
Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi
Art Direction by Kimihiko Nakamura
Produced by Kano Otsuka and Jiro Tomoda
Written by Keiji Hasebe and Shohei Imamura
Directed by Shohei Imamura

"You've only seen the surface of happiness. I'll show you the real depths."

Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman documents the lifespan of an individual woman, Tome Matsuki, from the Winter of 1918 to the Spring of 1961. It starts with her birth, but does not end with her death. This is not a film that follows the usual tension-and-release formula of most dramas. There's no grand climax, ultimate triumph, or absolute defeat. Tome's life is not one that'll make the history books--she commanded no troops, she signed no treaties, she authored no great works of literature, nor did she found any great institutions or make any unique discoveries. It works in an elliptical fashion, providing a great density of detail about Tome's daily existence, and then switching tracks, taking Tome to a new phase of her life, and a new mass of detail and routine. The movie doesn't always make explicit how she gets from point A to point B in her life, and yet it's mostly clear how Tome's life evolves over time. The film is almost a scientific endeavor, with each scene being a representative sampling of the major events and decision points of Tome's existence.  The film goes against all the usual rules of cinematic storytelling, and yet, in doing so, it achieves an almost perfect sense of the drama of one person's life.

Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari) was born to a family of tenant farmers in a rural village in Japan in 1918. Her first love is her slow-witted father, Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura), who starts sleeping with her when she's still a child. No one tells her that this is incest or that this relationship, by its nature, constitutes child abuse. Chuji himself may not even realize that what he's doing is wrong, as he seems to suffer from some sort of cognitive disability. Their love is not just disturbing, it's absolutely grotesque. When Tome matures into a young woman and has a child, Tome finds that her child will not suckle enough milk from her breasts. On the pretext of alleviating painfully swollen breasts, Chuji suckles the excess milk, and Tome takes sensual pleasure in the act.

Tome grows up, becomes a union organizer in a factory, but is pressured to return to the family's farm. She is constantly smothered by the presence of her family and their neighbors, and is obliged to use her body to get in good with the wealthier family that owns the land the Matsukis farm. She decides to leave the farm and makes her way to the big city, Tokyo, where she works for a spell as a maid for Midori (Masumi Harukawa) who is married to an American serviceman. Midori is pretty upfront with Tome about her mercenary motives for marrying an American. Midori sees the marriage as a potential opportunity to move up in the world, and if that means having a child she doesn't really want to keep her man around, then so be it.

Tome loses her job as a maid, and she finds herself scrubbing the floorboards of a brothel. Tome herself becomes a working girl and comes under the tutelage of a shrewd and tough madam (Tanie Kitabayashi) who is making a killing managing a stable of prostitutes. As a prostitute, Tome attracts the attention of an older businessman named Karasawa (Seizaburo Kawazu). Tome takes on the madam's role when the original is busted by the cops. Tome decides that the working girls need to take a more subtle approach to the trade, and so she urges them to take on a call girl business model. No more brothel. No more having all the prostitutes in one place where they can all be rounded up by cops looking for an easy bust. Now it's by appointment only with an approved list of customers. Tome proves perfectly capable of taking on the madam's role, and she even improves the business, making it just a bit more cop-proof.

All this time, Tome's daughter Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has been growing up back on the farm, and enduring a sexual relationship with Chuji. This kind of romance, if you can call it that, seems to be a village institution. Nobuko at first seems to be following the same pattern of her mother's life, but Nobuko sees herself as starting some sort of co-operative farm of her own. She is more infused with the democratic spirit of the times, and wants to be a leader of the co-op and not just a submissive laborer. When she comes to the city to join her mother she is seeking investor funds to start up this venture, and this brings her into intimacy with the lecherous Karasawa, who is more than happy to ditch Tome for a younger woman.

Along the way, Tome's life, and its tiny scale, are measured against the world-historical events of the day: Hirohito's surrender; agrarian reforms imposed by the occupation government; riots and the discontent of the people at being under the thumb of a foreign power; and the struggles of a fallen imperial aggressor state to transform itself into an enterprising democracy. To what degree Japan achieves such a lofty goal is debatable. Tome's life is a kind of measure of this success, as she, herself, transforms with the times, taking on whatever role is necessary to survive and advance in society. Tome's daughter Nobuko is a further measure of Japan's ongoing evolution as a nation-state entity. The road out of the ruins of militarism is especially harsh on women coming from poor backgrounds, but they meet these challenges with vitality and pragmatism.

I have to admit, it was hard for me to watch this movie and not bring my own morality to bear in judging the characters and their relationships. I've sat through many films about macho characters using unlimited violence to slaughter paper tiger evildoers by the baker's dozen. And here I am getting uptight about depictions of incest and Karasawa's seduction of the much younger Nobuko. Like a lot of Americans, I can watch people getting shot, tortured, exploded, eviscerated, and all kinds of massacred, but I flinch when it comes to frank depictions of sexuality that fall outside of my own definitions of what is and is not normal.

I don't think this movie is promoting incest, or prostitution, or even May-September romances,  it is simply portraying life as it was lived by specific people in specific circumstances. Director Shohei Imamura is not letting himself off the hook via the usual dramatic and/or cinematic contrivances. There are no larger-than-life heroes framed against majestic backdrops, there is no great catharsis or display of mayhem to make the uncomfortable aspects of life go away, none of that adventure movie by schematic tension and release bullshit. The rhythm of this movie has more to do with how life is lived. People don't change because of sudden, melodramatic or spiritual insight, but rather they are molded, over time, by their families, societies, and individual personalities into who they are, what they might be, and what they eventually become.

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