Saturday, March 31, 2007

beta gets wet

Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers is one of my all-time favorite films: voyeuristic, savage, frame-expanding, kinky, caustic in its wit, brilliant. And yet it's been almost impossible to glean anything else from the man's four-decade long oeuvre. Even going to Kim's Video shakes loose but a few late-period movies: The Eel, Black Rain, Vengeance is Mine. Even his Palmes D'Or-winning The Ballad of Narayama is nearly impossible to hunt down.

And yet, my elation at BAM's massive retrospective on the man (subtitled: Pimps, Prostitutes, and Pigs) is tempered by the fact that the nearly two dozen films run for a single day at most, and mostly while I am down in Texas for SXSW, meaning I miss a good four-fifths of them. The good news is that with Criterion's forthcoming release of Vengeance, it hopefully presages a deluge akin to that of the young girl from his 2001 film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.

While 1987's The Pimp continues Imamura's rib-elbowing rails on nationalism, misogyny, and Japan's bestial sexuality (often within a single scene), the next year brought his devastating Black Rain to the screen. A demure slow-burn shot in black and white, it looks as if it could be a counterpart to Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff or something, totally out of time.

Black Rain is about those that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Though survive isn't quite the word. The movie begins placidly, though we understand what is forthcoming, what is inevitable when the clock hits 8:16. A girl sits on a boat; her uncle boards a commuter train, ready for work. There's a fluffy parachute making its way down, ever so gently. And then the horror is upon us, in charred bodies, dangling eyes, skin shriveled into alien drapery on skeletal forms, kin rendered unrecognizable, somehow still walking but already dead. The fires of an earthly hell roar around them. The river clogs with bodily flotsam. In the audience, we suddenly remember all too well that it is us who have wrought this upon our fellow humanity. Or wait, do we just forget, doomed to repeat such atrocities elsewhere?

Imamura focuses intently on the nature surrounding his protagonists. We watch as rice grows tall in the paddies, how the tiny carp in the pond grows to over a meter in length by movie's end. And yet, the people who plant and the people who fish these carp are withering on the inside, sores and lumps become evident on their faces. But then of course, we forget that they already died within the first five minutes of the film; it just takes awhile for the flesh to finally come to pass. And even that's not the worst of the girl's fate, in that despite this imminent mortality, she is still defeated by petty human traits such as rumor, innuendo, pride. Nature abounds, humanity abates.

Hopeless cul-de-sac though the human condition may seem, Imamura posits hope in the last film of the series, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. No doubt, it's not his finest work, but the film's gimmick is a gut-buster. A young Japanese girl must perform a wicked act (either shoplifting or torrid sex with a stranger) in order to let loose a torrent of water. Not water sports, but sprinkler against the window-type splashing, snaking garden hose gushing, flood the basement and replenish the ponds and streams. Okay, it's a dam-buster.

Surrounded by sexual manuals from a thousand years ago, be it the Kama Sutra or Ovid's Amores, a sage man laments those too learned to partake in their most lascivious desires, noting that the ruling classes have always been about food and sex, that base desires continually rule humanity. The movie has little else to offer aside from such refreshing spritzes, but the lesson resounds regardless. Her warm water brings the carp near, draws the birds in from overhead, sweetens the sweets. Imamura, hinting at such truths all along in his other films, finally gushes with the truth: woman is goddess, is bounty, is eternal, replenishing the earth where it might otherwise shrivel and die.