Monday, October 22, 2007

An Introduction to Anthropology

THE PORNOGRAPHERS / Jinruigaku Nyumon: Erogotshi Yori

(Shohei Imamura, 1966, Japan, 35mm, 128 mins.)

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I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part
of the social structure. I want to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films.

-- Shohei Imamura (1926-2006)

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As the title indicates, Mr. Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) makes dirty
movies, but he does many other things besides. In this discursive,
darkly humorous portrait of repression in a rapidly-changing socie-
ty, director Shohei Imamura takes pornography as his starting
point before moving on to incest, mental illness, the women's lib-
eration movement, and more. You name it, and it's in there.

This makes The Pornographer: An Introduction to Anthropol-
ology, as the original Japanese title would have it (similarly, 1963's In-
sect Woman
is sub-titled Entomological Chronicles of Japan), both ex-
hausting and entertaining--or to quote Imamura, "Messy, really human,
Japanese, unsettling." And pissed-off without succumbing to polemics.

Ogata lives in Osaka with hairdresser Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto). As in
Black Rain, the creature in this case is a carp (pigs, eels, whales, and
snakes also enter into his work). Haru, Ogata's landlady, believes her re-
cently deceased husband has been reincarnated as a fish, and since it's
always watching her--the poor thing is kept in a too-small aquarium and
can barely move--she can't fully commit to her favorite tenant. (Tsai
Ming-liang swiped the same conceit for What Time Is It There?)

Consequently, Ogata, who doubles as a part-time pimp, isn't get-
ting much action with the increasingly unhinged Haru, but her adol-
escent daughter, Keiko (Keiko Sagawa), is starting to attract his at-
tention. Haru's college-age son, Koichi (Masaomi Kondo), on the oth-
er hand, is turning into a nuisance. He's always asking for money, and
when Ogata isn't able to help him out, Koichi steals what he needs.

Like Michael Powell's chilling Peeping Tom (1960)--with laughs
instead of chills--this black and white CinemaScope feature explor-
es voyeurism, but that doesn't make it voyeuristic (there's very
little nudity). Yet the viewer become implicated by watching.

Ogata is shown shooting his 8mm pornos, but Imamura is just as con-
cerned with his complicated personal life as his colorful profession. Oga-
ta is a pornographer in every sense of the word--not just through the
movies he makes (and the "virgins" he procures), but through the way
he treats his adopted family. Forcing the troubled Keiko to take the
place of her ailing mother, for instance, only pushes her towards por-
nography. Arguably, this makes Imamura a pornographer, as well.

By extension, the filmmaker seems to suggest that the state is the
ultimate pornographer. When men like Ogata aren't able to follow
their true passions--in his case, making blue movies for sex-starved
salary men--those passions can curdle into perversion and depravity,
infecting everyone in their vicinity (by the end, Ogata has gone way
over the edge). It's not so much that Imamura is taking a stand for
pornography, but for freedom of expression. In all its forms.

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Every time I watch one of Imamura's pictures,
I learn something. And every time I'm enthralled.

-- Martin Scorsese

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Shohei Imamura in brief: After assisting Yasujiro Ozu on Early
, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, and Tokyo Story, the
director debuted with Stolen Desire in 1958. (About Ozu, he has said, "I
wouldn't just say I wasn't influenced by Ozu: I would say I didn't want to
be influenced by him.") Along with only two other international filmmak-
ers, he has won the Palme d'Or twice, for Ballad of Narayama and The
(shared with Abbas Kiarostami's equally humanist Taste of Cherry).

Click here for my review of Vengeance Is Mine (1979).

Part of the 18-film retrospective A MAN VANISHES - THE LEGACY OF
SHOHEI IMAMURA, The Pornographers opens on 11/1 (10 of the tit-
les are unavailable on video). The Northwest Film Forum is located at 15-
15 12th Avenue between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click
or call 206-329-2629. Co-curated by NWFF program director Adam
Sekuler, the series continues to seven other cities. A commemorative
tour book featuring essays by Scorsese and others will be available at
all venues. Free of charge on 10/26 opening night (Stolen Desire), it
will cost $5 thereafter. Images from NWFF and Senses of Cinema.

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