Profound Desires of the Gods Review
As a culmination of Shohei Imamura's work beginning with the 1963 feature Pigs and Battleships, his troubled production Profound Desires of the Gods - a bloated 18-month shoot that was a financial failure and so souring to Imamura that he didn't return to traditional (using the term loosely) fiction filmmaking until over a decade later - now provides something of a click inside the mind of the viewer already familiar with the director. It's been tough to see in the English-speaking world prior to this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition, but the wait suddenly feels forgivable, a means of earning such a lovely disc and booklet. Though there is no ideal place to begin with in watching the films of Imamura, I'm especially reluctant to recommend this as a starting point. Instead, perhaps go for Criterion's excellent Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes box set or either the Criterion or MoC release of Vengeance Is Mine (coming soon to Blu-ray via the latter label). By all means, though, still consider picking up this new Blu-ray as soon as possible. It might just be where Imamura's idiosyncrasies finally click for you.
Why would Profound Desires of the Gods, an often difficult and enormously eccentric movie, be the work to possibly unlock Imamura beyond some of the basic things that tend to get repeated about his themes and interests (i.e., the preoccupation with social anthropology, the penchant for making messy films, and his confessed fascination with mixing the lower body of humans with the lower rungs of society)? Beginning with Pigs and Battleships, his fifth film but the first that he could comfortably be considered to have "authored," Imamura often explored the plights of rather ordinary individuals mired inside Japanese society. His heroines, particularly, were resilient women who placed survival above all else. One might, and Imamura explicitly did, compare them to various insects and untamed creatures who subconsciously recognized their limitations but quickly discovered their strengths as well. The role of postwar Japan, and the enormous Western influence that Imamura perceived as infecting his nation, also became a major aspect of these films. Profound Desires solidifies much of this while both commenting on and dissecting ideas broached previously.
To be clear, there are really just five earlier pictures that form the discussion here. Pigs and Battleships was followed by The Insect Woman, Intentions of Murder, The Pornographers and the very strange, very brilliant pseudo-documentary A Man Vanishes. For those enamored with Imamura, these are five of the finest movies of the decade. Excepting perhaps the first, they aren't, however, terribly accessible. The approach in each of these could be described as clinical, cool even. What doesn't necessarily register initially is that Imamura is actually a selective humanist. His reluctance to guide the viewer emotionally - with the later Vengeance Is Mine acting as the most extreme example of this - might be off-putting to some, but it seems to be a means of objectivity where the plane is absolutely equal. This preference is likely what drove Imamura into the unique type of documentaries he turned to after Profound Desires. The notable use of assorted bugs and animals to create a kind of bridge between humans and their less civilized counterparts is a defining point. It shows, and is particularly illustrated in Profound Desires, an affinity for all creatures who struggle to maintain their existence. If your concerns extend beyond survival then Imamura likely has no interest or sympathy.
That the director's own upbringing was decidedly upper middle-class and comfortable, and that he secured opportunities to attend a prestigious university and later apprentice under Yasujiro Ozu (whose films he continually maintained a dislike for), only adds another peg of knowledge for Imamura. He infiltrated the seedier side of Japanese life on his own and simply found it for his liking and admiration over the more cushy existence he'd grown up in. Perhaps it was this experience or a incident elsewhere that allowed for it, but something that's rather unique about the films Imamura directed is that the viewer is able to quite literally smell them. Scoff and express disbelief all you want, it's completely true. In the irresistible climax of Pigs and Battleships, the porcine stampede exudes very specific odors of the pigs on impromptu parade and their unmistakable smell. The Insect Woman confides a certain whiff of stale female sweat after copulation while Intentions of Murder has some of the same and a bit more in the form of the chilly, stagnant air from the darkened tunnel where the heroine and her rapist meet on the way to Tokyo. The Pornographers, of course, stinks of aged trout and musty 8mm smut.
The island setting of Profound Desires and its color cinematography indicate a completely new smell. It's somewhat pungent, indicative of mild body odor but also with a sickly sweet hint of sugar cane. At times, you can almost detect a dry mix of salt and sand-covered Earth. What Imamura does in the film, and why it deserves to be seen as a final chapter of sorts in this period of his work, involves an indulgence of themes to the point of newfound clarity. The dregs of a society are here, as are the looming images of snakes and lizards and birds and whatever else Imamura can find to connect his humans to their animal counterparts. Males are either weak or overly cunning while one of the females shown tends to be rational and the other, a half-wit, is almost feral in her attachment to the primitiveness of nature. It's this connection to the outdoors that forms a significant theme of the film, where the distinction between natural and unnatural, or, as Imamura himself instructed, regular and irregular, goes unnoticed among the characters only to be pointed out somewhat coyly to the viewer. Thus, whereas the director's previous efforts had situated various aspects of nature as a reflection of his characters, Profound Desires comes full circle to allow the characters to be at one with nature. They are, per their status as inhabitants of a largely unmodernized island, inseparable from their surroundings, for better or worse.
Just as Imamura declines to pass judgment, he also decides against the simplification of these undertakings. A key to it all is the realization that both animal and human receive the same treatment and the same sympathy. Early on in the film, a pig goes overboard into the ocean and is quickly devoured by a shark, much the same as the man who later suffers a nearly identical fate. The anthropological curiosity Imamura so enjoys is grounded in the belief that organisms are fascinating to study and watch when they are at their most primal. The earlier films he directed in the '60s situated their human protagonists in supposedly civilized societies. Imamura, though, still presents his characters in these pictures as adhering to their natural instincts amid the necessary yet unnatural settings of cities and villages. They adapt as needed but it's always a struggle to suppress desire and compromise for fear of facing outside criticism. By finally allowing the island inhabitants in Profound Desires to be constantly drenched in the dirt and sweat of their native land, Imamura comes full circle. It's still fiction filmmaking but he's now able to study his subjects in their natural habitat.
For much of the film, the director employs his favored position of voyeur. He seemed to master this penchant for peeping tom-style angles in The Pornographers and then took it to a decidedly more complex level with A Man Vanishes. At times, the camera acts as an unwelcome observer in Profound Desires but Imamura later seems to abandon this idea. It's almost as if he's making the viewer shyly get to know the characters before removing that sheen so that a greater truth can be revealed. Long shots from outside windows and squinting peeks from the distance aren't uncommon, but the instance of Imamura's voyeuristic eye at play that most stands out is when the character of Ryu and his mistress Uma are seen out of focus from a God's eye view. An overhead light fixture with lizards lurking freely helps to conceal the tension down below. It's a marvelous shot.
Uma, in a forbidden love with her brother Nekichi, has been recognized as a noro, or shaman of the island who has the ability to communicate directly with the gods. Nekichi was punished long ago for the insinuations of incest with Uma and now carries a chain around his ankle. Their complicated desires form a parallel with the mythological origins of the island. A trickle down of incest extends to Nekichi's son Kame and daughter Toriko. This family, the Futoris, are often maligned as beasts by others on the island. They face punishment at the hands of the locals but Imamura seems to favor them for a certain pureness they possess. He essentially paints the Futoris as the main characters, and fairly sympathetic ones at that. Their reluctance to accept the given narrative about the island and its future also plays in their favor, with customs dismissed as superstition on more than one occasion. Whether the latter is actually endorsed by Imamura would be tough to say. A sense of tragedy strikes the Futoris and also furthers the mystical qualities of the island. By the end, the cynicism seen in previous films from Imamura becomes inevitable. He's clearly averse to Western interference and the subsequent desecration of Japan. That such a footprint spread to more remote areas like the Okinawa-set island seen in Profound Desires seemed to have infuriated Imamura. He grows passive-aggressive in damning the Western influence by strewing images of Coca-Cola, perhaps the ultimate emblem of capitalism, around the film's finale.
Profound Desires of the Gods is a remarkably rich film experience. Imamura's statement that he liked to make messy films has probably never been more applicable than it is here, an effort that stands as perhaps his messiest. Its scope is at once epic and intimate. The affection for Japan, its denizens of lower social class, and all of the perceived irregularities that follow overtake the eccentricities of the plot to reveal a director gasping for air in a system he was anxious to abandon. He of course did, only to come back and make one of the best movies of his career with Vengeance Is Mine and later earn a pair of Palme d'or awards at Cannes. There are some definite similarities between Profound Desires and Ballad of Narayama, the first of his plaudit-earners. The latter achieves a poignancy and disruption of emotion that he wasn't so much interested in with the '60s work but that ambition of youth (or something like it) is much more on display here. Imamura likely couldn't have made something so daring later in his career. Profound Desires exudes confidence. It finds a filmmaker at a crossroads, ready to expand upon his earlier work and undeterred by obstacles.
Eureka's Masters of Cinema series hits on all cylinders to bring Profound Desires of the Gods to the home viewer for, I believe, the first time ever in an English subtitled edition. It's being released only on Blu-ray - no accompanying DVD pressing - and the high definition disc is locked for Region B.
When reviewing the first (and thus far only previous) BD-only release City Girl a few months back, I hinted that having a region-locked title available exclusively for Blu-ray might be worth questioning. My stance has now softened. It might be the sheer beauty of this edition influencing my opinion but the more likely cause is a combination of accepting that, no matter what anyone else thinks, this is MoC's chosen approach and, further, the opportunity to obtain a reasonably priced player that will play Blu-ray discs from all regions has become a stronger reality this year than in the months past. This isn't a situation where the MoC folks had any say in region-locking the disc. The stance of only placing such restrictions when obligated contractually remains in place. Financial limitations will always affect what we can and cannot view so I find the idea of moving in the direction of BD-only releases, especially when it means increased output, to be persuasive.
That being said, woe is the MoC-ophile who can't enjoy this 1080p film experience at his or her leisure. Anyone with even the most optimistic of expectations regarding a 1968 Nikkatsu Scope (2.35:1) feature will likely have them exceeded by this transfer. It makes the island setting resemble a sharp and vibrant paradise soaked in sunlight. Colors look strikingly true. The fine detail is far stronger than what we've come to expect from films over forty years old. Nothing looks artificially manipulated or presents any sort of digital issues either. Damage is a total non-factor, as I noticed just a lone piece of debris stubbornly in the top left part of the frame for a few seconds. It's otherwise a remarkably clean transfer that still retains the grain expected for a proper viewing. As day turns to night and the natural darkness that follows is on display, blacks tend to not have that often desired level of depth, which could be a small point of dissatisfaction for some who think all films should look like ink was poured on the frame in such sequences. It wasn't a problem for me, and likely shows a reluctance to fiddle around too much with boosting in favor of being faithful to the intended look of the film. There's certainly not been another English-subtitled release of a film directed by Imamura that even comes close to rivaling the picture quality seen here.
The Japanese language audio arrives via a DTS-HD mono track. Sounds emerge from the center front speaker in the single-channel track. It comes through clearly and minus any noticeable problems. Dialogue can be heard at a consistent and healthy volume. The musical score composed by Toshiro Mayuzumi, who'd earlier worked with Imamura on The Pornographers, is filled with evocative, even mysterious, sounds that are reproduced quite well on the disc's audio. The optional English subtitles included are white in color and, as far as I could tell, free from any typographical errors.
On the disc, there are a pair of extra features, both in HD. An Introduction by Tony Rayns (11:37) touches on the Okinawa setting of the film and provides more background information, appropriate for viewing before seeing the film but just as helpful when seen afterward, than analysis. Also included is the lengthy original Japanese trailer (5:28), which asks at one point the very Imamura-like question of what it means to be Japanese.
The real meat of the supplemental materials comes in the form of a characteristically thoughtful 44-page booklet that I found to be full of helpful insight, both regarding the film and its creator. Tony Rayns returns with a much more in-depth written piece than his video intro. His essay runs 10 pages and looks specifically at Profound Desires while also still making time to discuss a little of Imamura's career, his use of the film's island setting, and some of the parallels and contrasts with contemporary Nagisa Ôshima. A first-person delving into his "Traditions and Influences" taken from an interview with Imamura and published in a 1985 issue of Positif magazine goes for portions of 5 pages. An interesting look at the director's mindset early in his career follows, in a late 1950s article he wrote after having made a trio of features for Nikkatsu. It also takes up 5 pages. Various stills, reproduced in black and white, and film and disc credits make up the remainder of the booklet. It's easy to take the work done on such a supplement for granted, but these are clearly well-chosen pieces that really do enhance appreciation for this and other films made by Imamura. Few things, either in print or on the disc, could have been more instructive.