Shohei Imamura’s THE INSECT WOMAN


I became interested in Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s THE INSECT WOMAN after hearing or reading Mark Cousins talking about it. It is now out on Blu-ray, and is quite extraordinary – provocative, perplexing, and beautiful.

Here is Cousins talking about it in Capital Celluloid:-

The Insect Woman, by Imamura Shohei, isn’t all that well known, but should be. It’s about a lower class Japanese woman who struggles through life, has a child, and works as a maid for a posher woman. It’s shocking – at one point the Japanese woman seems to suckle her dad. In another, we see a child scald herself with boiling soup. But there are two reasons why I love it. Firstly, its style. The Insect Woman is one of the most beautiful films ever made. It’s shot very widescreen, and the compositions are breathtaking. … The second reason I like it is because of what it says about people. The first shot is an insect scuttling across the land. Then we cut to the woman doing the same. … Imamura loves [the woman] for her unstoppability, her survival instinct, her glorious forward propulsion.

In the excellent accompanying booklet to the Blu-ray, Tony Rayns says:-

The Insect Woman was one of the most advanced films made anywhere in the world in 1963. It fulfils Imamura’s dream of making a ‘”messy”, disorderly cinema by spanning one woman’s life, from her birth in the winter of 1918 to her decrepit middle-age in the spring of 1961, and cunningly articulating it in two opposed ways. First, it takes Matsuki Tome’s life as a cipher for Japan’s larger evolution from an agrarian society to an urban society, noting both the gains and losses along the way. Second, it highlights her obliviousness to the momentous societal and political changes going on around her

The “messy” style gives it a freshness and contemporary feel even today. As Jason Morgan say in a piece in Movie Guide:-

Combined with freeze frames and impromptu voice overs, Imamura’s ‘new wave’ style elevates as it complicates. He takes a difficult story and makes it less approachable, but rewarding for those who let the film unravel in its own way. While the postwar politics may fade away, Tomé’s failed successes continue to impress and elude us more than 45 years later.

Tony Rayns sums up well:-

This is the prototypical Imamura film: a challengingly earthy, vulgar, hard-nosed account of aspects of Japanese society and the Japanese character which he believed to be fundamental. The Japanese critics in 1963 were right: it’s a masterpiece.


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