Friday, February 17, 2012

#473: The Insect Woman

(Shohei Imamura, 1963)

Even though Pigs and Battleships spent nearly as much time with its male characters as its females, my guess is that it came as little surprise to his audience that the next film Imamura made was trained intently on the fairer sex. The Insect Woman is far from a typical portrait of femininity, however - especially within Japanese culture. Tomé, the protagonist of the film, is a forced opportunist, and the metaphor of the English title is clear: she will do what it takes to survive.

Despite moments of dark humor, this a depressing ride. Tome's life runs parallel to the great upheaval of the middle of the 20th century in Japan, and while she doesn't herself participate in the happenings, her life is caught up in the current of history. Even moments where Tomé gets a leg up are at the expense of others, but most of the time she is being continually beaten down. This happens because of events out of her control, usually by men though not infrequently by other women. Her own survival seems improbable from the beginning, but her daughter's life - which would have been ended just as it began by other women, fighting for their own survival - reinforces resiliency, the only redeemable theme of the film. When we learn that her daughter has pulled one over on Tomé's sleazy john, it's a reminder that evolution is alive and well. In fact, it's the daughter who receives a possibly happy ending with her boyfriend on a tractor, while Tomé herself is left climbing a hill broken and nearly finished.

After Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman confirms Imamura's lofty ambitions with regards to women and their place in Japanese society. Stereotypically, Japan is not a place that is often thought of as friendly towards women and certainly not reflective on their role in society and the sacrifices they make. Imamura proves this assumption wrong here, but his take is so grim that the movie becomes soul-crushing long before it's over, turning into overkill. The final insight doesn't seem nearly valuable enough to withstand the journey there.

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