Eureka Entertainment // 1963 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard // February 6th, 2012
"I still have a lot of suffering to do."
Shohei Imamura's study of working class female life in both prewar and postwar Japan, The Insect Woman, opens with a shot of a beetle struggling up a hill. This is immediately followed by the birth of Tome (Sachiko Hidari) in 1918 into an impoverished family. It doesn't take very long for the viewer to connect the dots and realize that Imamura intends to compare the lives of Japanese women to that of the insects we so rarely notice, toiling their whole lives for so little reward. Eureka has released The Insect Woman (Blu-ray) (Region B).
The Insect Woman is broken up into small segments that each deal with another of Tome's struggles. Although the struggles are numerous, Imamura seems most fixated on Tome's mistreatment at the hands of the men she encounters. The man whom she calls father, but who -- due to her mother's promiscuity -- may not actually be related, treats Tome with affection, but also enters into a clearly inappropriate sexual relationship with her from an early age. Before the outbreak of war, Tome is confronted by her "Papa," who demands sex. When she refuses, she is informed that he will be going to fight for their country soon, and so she must now do her "duty." Imamura is too restrained to make any definitive statements, but this early example of abuse is clearly highlighted as it informs Tome's actions -- or perhaps her inaction-in the events that follow. Rather than strive for something more, Tome -- like the beetle that opens the film -- is seen to be living simply to survive. There's no grand plan, no hopes or dreams; instead, Tome simply adapts just enough to exist. This abuse at a young age has a troubling effect on Tome's later relationships, as is seen in her request that she call a latter sexual partner "daddy," clearly reflecting on her forced sexual awakening. As is typical of Imamura's work, Tome isn't blessed with the intellect to escape her past. Thus, when she finally reaches a position of some authority, it is as madam who herself sells young girls for sex, thus helping to inflict the abuse she has suffered for years on others.
Spanning five decades, The Insect Woman reveals Imamura's fascination with the way Japanese society of the time showed so little regard towards its womenfolk. One of the more distressing moments comes when, only moments after giving birth, Tome is forced to fight for her baby's survival when her relatives suggest it would be best to let the child die, lest they bring another hungry mouth into their already struggling household. Even during the supposedly more liberal fifties, when Tome moves to the bustling streets of Tokyo, things do not improve much. Tome is publicly berated due to her indiscretion with a married man, while no thought is given to the infidelity of her lover. Likewise, though the 1950s bring Tome the chance to make her own money, it is through prostitution. Whereas before she was the toy of the sexually aggressive men in the village she grew up, the only difference now is that Tome finds she is a commodity, and can demand a fee for her time.
The Insect Woman moves at a slow pace and seems to revel in the mundane. Large stretches of time are spent in the company of Tome and her female relatives and friends; their conversations reveal their strong personalities, which contrast sharply with their submissiveness toward men. These moments certainly support the theory that Imamura holds much admiration for the strength of these women, yet with none of them breaking free from the shackles of their husbands and partners, The Insect Woman suggest his film may be intended as a wake-up call.
Eureka's The Insect Woman (Blu-ray) (Region B) sports a solid 2.35:1/1080p transfer. Filmed in high contrast black-and-white, the transfer rarely suffers for its age, with little evidence of damage. The opening shot of a beetle crawling over cracked terrain looks especially sharp. The mono soundtrack is clear, though understandably lacking range. The Blu-ray has optional English subtitles.
The Blu-ray includes an interview with director Shohei Imamura, conducted by film critic Tadao Sato. Clocking in at 21 minutes, we get a brief, but no less fascinating look at Imamura's career from the man himself. What will prove most interesting to Imamura fans is the inclusion of his little seen 1958 film, Nishi-Ginza Station. Contrasting sharply with Imamura's later works, Nishi-Ginza Station opens with a quirky musical number, and feels more like Imamura's attempt at aping the hip American cinema of the time, rather than forging his own unique path. Still, despite the lack of depth that marks it out as very much a lesser Imamura, it still retains an odd charm and should delight fans of the director who have previously been unable to view it.
The Insect Woman is classic Imamura. As is true of much of Imamura's filmography, The Insect Woman captures a snapshot of a flawed society and, rather than pass judgment on those who inhabit it, simply observes them going about their daily lives. Despite being a supremely well-crafted film, it's hard to recommend The Insect Woman as an enjoyable experience; it clearly isn't. Tome's journey is a difficult and ultimately fruitless one. Born into ignorance, she has just as little chance of succeeding in postwar Tokyo as she has in the mountains where she grew up. Perhaps this is the most saddening truth revealed in The Insect Woman: for some, life has no great meaning. The film's final moments, which mirror its opening, perfectly sums up the futility of Tome's existence, and makes for a powerful conclusion.
Review content copyright © 2012 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film