The Insect Woman Review

One of Shohei Imamura’s signature films is brought to DVD by the Criterion Collection in its “Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes” box set. Each of the titles is being reviewed separately by clydefro.

Stung by home studio Nikkatsu’s unhappiness that Pigs and Battleships went over budget, director Shohei Imamura was given an involuntary hiatus before being allowed to return to work with 1963’s The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki). The film’s native title literally translates as “Japan Entomology,” and finds Imamura studying humans as one might do with insects. Specifically, the life of a single unexceptional female is explored from her birth in a small village in 1918 through the early 1960s, with numerous points in the time line marked both by what happens to Tomé, the woman, and the nation of Japan. In his interview on this Criterion disc, critic Tony Rayns cites Imamura’s connecting of his protagonist to events in the country as pretentious, but I actually found this slight, almost subliminal link to be a refreshingly suggestive steadying of the story instead of an attempt by the director to reach beyond his bounds. Imamura is cagey enough to let you know what he’s doing without explicitly carping on it.

Regardless, that’s not the theme of the film, and The Insect Woman clearly refuses to build on the overt politicization of Pigs and Battleships. Imamura instead makes his intention obvious from the start as a beetle struggles to climb a hill of dirt against the opening titles. Tomé (played with devastating authenticity by Sachiko Hidari) is eventually revealed to be the equivalent of the beetle in the film’s last shot, which mimics the opening but replaces the bug with our heroine. This much is not a spoiler or any form of deep analysis of Imamura’s intentions. He’s quite obviously establishing a parallel. The light bulb moment is allowed to happen inside the viewer’s own mind after considering that the beetle is only one of countless identical creatures struggling to survive and adapt to its surroundings. Tomé is likewise a dot in the human spectrum. Imamura uses insects, and that may be a most apt comparison considering how focused and numerous those creatures are, but the analogy of humans to other communities of mobile creatures is also allowed. To reduce the dreams and hopes and accomplishments of human beings to that of mere insects is, for many, a pessimism of the highest order. In Imamura’s film he essentially does just that, quite persuasively and still with some degree of delicacy but actually without the negativity one might expect.

The Insect Woman is greatly concerned with its lead character’s ability to adapt to her surroundings. It’s far less interested in judging her actions or asking the audience to view her as a victim. Imamura’s films amaze me in how shrewdly the protagonists’ paths are delineated without either offering or eliciting sympathy. We never fully relate to or feel sorry for or even pity Tomé. By the very same token, Imamura also resists any judging of his characters. Even in Vengeance Is Mine, a film that greatly resembles this one, there’s never a point where the director is genuinely registering his disgust at the serial killer lead. It can be frustrating knowing that these actions are clearly repulsive and wrong, or, as in The Insect Woman, simply contrary to the established codes of society, and that Imamura is coolly offering no opinion. What a novel approach to telling stories, though. You can enter any film directed by Shohei Imamura and know, with almost extreme certainty, that he will neither justify nor condemn the actions displayed by his characters. Such a lack of hypocrisy can be comforting.

Tomé gets sidled with an abundance of problems and dysfunctions and such. She’s not terribly likable, but who is really. The character immediately, through no control of her own, enters the world at a disadvantage by being born a bastard child of a promiscuous mother and irresponsible father. The man she comes to recognize as her father figure is a slow-witted local who develops what is basically an innocently incestuous relationship with her. Tomé’s daughter Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) will also follow in the same path. Imamura clearly emphasizes this somewhat disturbing trend, including a horrifically conflicted death bed encounter where Tomé offers up the milk from her breast one last time to the expiring simpleton, but it mostly comes across as a quasi-accepted part of growing up in the village. There’s certainly no shame involved. Tomé lacks regret or disgust, and she, like her daughter later, even insists on giving a particular lover a paternal nickname. It’s a cycle that, as in the insect world, perpetuates itself without objection. When Tomé realizes that Nobuko has followed in some of the same footsteps of her mother she’s initially angry but soon enough develops a pride in her daughter’s ability to also adapt as necessary.

For Tomé, these adaptations are decidedly practical and increasingly opportunistic. The woman raised in a humble village eventually finds herself establishing a union and later ratting out her boss to attain the same position. Her journey also includes working as a maid and negligently letting the child of her employers scald herself to death, as well as serving some time as an initially reluctant prostitute. One has to be careful when relaying the events of Imamura’s film to avoid making it seem like a skipping narrative of Hollywood proportions. It’s unequivocally not. I’ve never read any legitimate criticism against The Insect Woman, but I can imagine such dissents would focus on the main character’s itchy insistence on spinning greed out of complacency. Tomé is not necessarily blessed with exceptional ambition but she nonetheless makes do with seizing opportunity when it’s offered. The most disarming instance of this is when the character, after earlier decrying prostitution as evil, cooperates with law enforcement to get her madame imprisoned and then takes that very position for herself. Remarkable. The wily resolve brings to mind Fassbinder’s Maria Braun from his 1979 film.

Where Tomé differs from Maria Braun is that she shows little in the way of forethought or obvious cunning. As with an insect like Imamura’s beetle, Tomé doesn’t act with the intention or master plan of rising to the top. She simply makes the best possible use of opportunities and manages to adapt to any given situation. Her goal or fate isn’t success so much as survival. It’s what any successful human, insect or other organism does to thrive. Really, it’s even what a virus does. The important thing for Imamura is exposing our natural human instincts as being incredibly primal and consistent with other organisms. The cyclical nature, with Tomé resembling both her mother and daughter in action, is another key to Imamura’s point of a continuing, powerful, and repetitive fate that’s largely beholden to circumstance. There’s something clearly at work here that the director found fascinating enough to largely build a career on and explore repeatedly. Imamura would tackle these sorts of female protagonists again, though not with the same exact focus, and he’d also dedicate his career to people on the very same fringe of society. If Pigs and Battleships was his creative breakthrough, The Insect Woman can be seen as Imamura’s first wholly signature film.

The Disc

The Insect Woman finally receives an English-friendly DVD, along with Pigs and Battleships and Intentions of Murder, in the Criterion Collection’s Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura box set. It is available only in that collection and not released individually. The R1 discs are housed in individual keepcases with 16-page booklets for each film. A distinctive font has been used throughout the set, including in the text of the essays, and a striking hot pink color that resembles the inside of a dragon fruit brightens up the interior of the box as well as the actual discs.

Shot in high contrast black and white by cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda, the 2.35:1 image has been reproduced on this disc as well as one might reasonably hope. Levels of deep black and artificially bright white do not necessarily favor the DVD format as well as actually being seen on film, but I don’t think there’s anything lacking in the quality. The progressive transfer, enhanced for widescreen televisions, is still a welcome reminder that few companies are willing or able to so adeptly bring films like this to home viewers as the Criterion Collection. Excepting a small hair that smuggled its way into a shot at one point, there is no visible damage here. Detail is acceptable but maybe not razor sharp. Some grain is kept in the image. It also doesn’t look abnormally manipulated. I’m quite pleased overall.

The audio sounds a little smoother than the track for Pigs and Battleships, meaning the dialogue meshes easier with the score (which is wildly different than in that film). The Japanese mono does have some very minor crackle in it, which never becomes a problem. It’s a single-channel monaural track in a language most viewers don’t understand. The impact is about as positive as could be expected. English subtitles, white in color, are optional and, as far as I could tell, flawless.

Each of these Imamura films has a trio of supplements included, solid additions one and all. An undated conversation (20:52) (from the eighties maybe?) between critic Tadao Sato and Imamura relates directly to The Insect Woman, making it a perfect companion for the disc. Among other things, Imamura discusses the real woman who was the inspiration behind his film’s protagonist. There’s also the video interview (13:41) with critic and historian Tony Rayns that I mentioned above. His take is interesting and welcomed, but I kept waiting for more effusive praise to come spewing forth. At one point he latches on to Imamura’s use of still frames with the assertion that it was done to draw attention to otherwise unremarkable images. This could be right. It might also be true that Imamura did it to, as he endorses in the conversation with Sato, fragment the film into somewhat disorienting and casual chapters.

A booklet featuring a strong essay by Dennis Lim runs 16 pages and is nestled inside the transparent case.

Final Thoughts

This is a film easily considered as a landmark in the career of Shohei Imamura. There’s a story the director tells in two different supplemental pieces on this set where a friend, the writer Shinji Fujiwara, told him after seeing Pigs and Battleships that continuing to work on larger and larger scales could lead to problems. That Japan didn’t “need two Akira Kurosawas.” (Criterion might disagree.) Imamura admits taking this to heart, and I think that changed emphasis to a more intimate and troubling perspective really allowed him to carve out a distinct niche in the history of Japanese film. The Insect Woman is the true starting point of that. It avoids pandering to the audience, either in expectation or delivery. There’s quiet boldness in Imamura’s storytelling, and while I don’t expect this box set to have the selling power of Criterion’s many Akira Kurosawa releases, I’m grateful that the label found room on its schedule for these movies.

clydefro jones

Updated: May 09, 2009

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