Shohei Imamura

Shohei Imamura 今村昌平

Shohei Imamura.
  • Shohei (Shouhei) Imamura (15 September, 1926 - 30 May, 2006)
  • avant garde Japanese film writer, producer, and director
  • born in Tokyo
  • one of Japan's grittiest movie directors
  • famous for his humorous portrayals of human desire
  • directed 20 films over a 50 year career
  • first Japanese director, and one of only four worldwide, to win two Palme d'Or awards at Cannes

The Japanese film director Shohei (also transliterated Shouhei) Imamura was born the third son of a doctor. He studied Western history at the prestigious Waseda University. However, post-war monetary woes led to his engaging in black marketing for a short time after the end of World War Two. This proved a seminal period for Imamura creatively, providing him with the experiences he would recount in film throughout his long career.

His obsession with the underside of human existence was driven by his desire to discover what it meant to be human - specifically, what it was that made us different from other animals.

In 1951 he entered the major film production company, Shochiku Studios, one of the successful 8 out of 2000 applicants. He began work as assistant to the famous director Yasujiro Ozu, as well as Yuzo Kawashima, and soon made it to coordinator of the assistant directors' section of Shochiku's Ofuna studio, where he worked.

Dissatisfaction with pay and conditions at Shochiku, saw him move to Nikkatsu Studios in 1954. Not only this, but, unlike Ozu, who was renowned for portraying a Japan of refined sensibilities, Imamura was drawn to the underbelly of Japanese society and the basic human drives he found there.

Shohei Imamura.

Also, unlike his time at Shochiku, Nikkatsu gave him much freer creative rein. He earned his first screen credit as an assistant director there in 1955. Also, his first script-writing experience came here in 1957, with Bakumatsu Taiyoden (Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate) directed by Yuzo Kawashima (who had also moved to Nikkatsu), and Kirio Urayama's Kyupora no Aru Machi (Foundry Town) (1962).

His first film he directed himself at Nikkatsu was Nusumareta Yokujo (Stolen Desire) (1958). In spite of winning a New Talent award for it, he toned down the grittiness at the behest of the studio and followed with three much more lightweight comedies. He returned to form three years later with his Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships) in 1961. This film fully explored the theme of humans as animals and what made us different from other animals - that Imamura was so interested in, portraying the wildness of life lived at the Yokosuka U.S. military base. However, it shocked his studio with what it feared might look like anti-Americanism. This was his first film to find audiences overseas.

Although he was relieved of directing for two years following this, his resumption of it in 1963, with Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman), and in 1964 with Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder, or Unholy Desire), showed him unrepentant. His hard boiled style was there to stay.

To gain more artistic freedom, Imamura began his own company, Imamura Productions, in 1965. The next year he produced Erogotoshitachi yori Jingakurui Nyumon (An Anthology Primer from the Pornographers). His next work was the documentary Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes) (1967) about an actual woman whose husband goes missing and who actually starts falling in love with the actor conducting the investigation into his disappearance. He returned then to conventional film making with Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (The Profound Desire of the Gods) (1968). In spite of being one of his most ambitious efforts, it did not succeed at the box office. He went back to smaller scale documentaries.

Shohei Imamura.

1970 saw Nippon Sengoshi - Madamu Onboro no Seikatsu (The History of Post-War Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess), and 1975, Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute. The karayuki were Japanese women who, for economic reasons, were forced to accompany the Japanese armed forces overseas as prostitutes. In 1979 he went back to his prior format with Fukushu Suru Wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance is Mine), but even this film was based on the true story of a serial murderer from 1973, told in a book by Ryuzo Saki.

Of the eight further films he directed between then and 2002, two of them won the Cannes Film Festival's top honor, the Palme D'Or. They were Narayama Bushiko (The Ballad of Narayama) in 1983, and Unagi (The Eel) in 1997. The Ballad of Narayama is a remake of a 1958 movie about the last days of an old woman who, according to village tradition, is due to be abandoned on a mountain to starve. The Eel follows the fortunes of a man who kills his wife, goes to jail, with only his pet eel for company. His life changes when, after opening a barber shop upon release, he saves a woman from suicide.

Imamura's health suffered from his heavy smoking and affinity for shochu. His demise in May 2006 at age 79 was of multiple organ failure, triggered by metastasized cancer of the colon.

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