Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection – Preview

This week Masters of Cinema announced the release of a new boxset titled Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection. So what does it contain and is it worth a purchase?

The box contains eight films, all of which have already been released before. The contents are as follows:

盗まれた欲情 / Stolen Desire (1958)
西銀座駅前 / Nishi Ginza Station (1958)
豚と軍艦 / Pigs and Battleships (1961)
にっぽん昆虫記 / The Insect Woman (1963)
人間蒸発 / A Man Vanishes (1967) – DVD only
神々の深き欲望 / Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)
復讐するは我にあり / Vengeance is Mine (1979)
楢山節考 / The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

In the Blu-ray era of Masters of Cinema, only three other boxsets have been released. The first was the three-film Martin Scorsese Presents World Cinema Foundation Volume One boxset, the second was the excellent Late Mizoguchi boxset and the final was the Shoah five-film boxset. All are worthwhile boxes to buy full of new films that hadn’t seen the light of day prior to their release (apart from the Mizoguchi release, which only had four  newly-transferred-to-HD films out of eight).

For those with any or all of the contents of this newly announced box, it no doubt represent a disappointing announcement. I was aware there was a gap in the numbering of the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray releases, between 120 Medium cool and 129 Dragon Inn, so I was hoping that an eight-film director-centric boxset would be announced. Having just got back into Imamura I was underwhelmed when I realised the boxset would contain eight films, seven of which I already own on Blu-Ray.

That said, the films include one Palme d’Or winner, two Blue Ribbon Best Film winners, Imamura’s debut film and some excellent insights into the career of a film director considered to be one of the greatest ever to come out of Japan. Not every film is amongst his best – notably Nishi Ginza Station is fairly poor – but if you have a copy of both The Eel and Black Rain (not Masters of Cinema) then you’ll have pretty much all of his most important works. It spans his entire career and represents the only way in the UK to get any of his films on Blu-Ray.

Importantly, it is rumoured that this will be the last chance to buy these films as part of the Masters of Cinema releases as they have let the rights lapse on them. If this is true, and you don’t have these films yet, then this is a must-buy.

The Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection boxset is available for pre-order now.

豚と軍艦 / Pigs & Battleships (Shohei Imamura, 1961)

Partly as story about criminal gangs, partly a love story and partly social commentary, Pigs and Battleships succeeds in many ways. Perhaps its biggest success is being a vehicle for Imamura to stick two fingers up at the Nikkatsu Corporation, who had forced him to product uncharacteristically light fare (such as Nishi-Ginza Station), returning to the electric edginess hinted at in his debut picture Stolen Desire (also featured here).

This tone would be the cornerstone of a rich career in the film industry and Pigs & Battleships was the first time the world saw what Imamura was capable of. The unexpected controversy coupled with a spiraling budget led to Imamura being banned from directing by Nikkatsu for two years.

The plot of the film revolves around the frictional relationship between Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Kinta is a member of the local yakuza gang who are hatching a plan to farm and sell pork to the occupying US Naval Forces. Haruko is desperate for them both to move away from the tricky environment they both live in; she is two-months pregnant and still being sold by her mother for dates with US sailors. Kinta, though, is his own man and wants to make a name for himself and thus avoid becoming a slave to the wage.

A wonderful new put-down enters our lives.

A wonderful new put-down enters our lives.

Sinsaku Himeda’s cinematography contributes to a beautiful-looking picture and, coupled with some wonderfully-realised characterisation by Imamura, the film is extremely accessible and enjoyable even for those without an affinity for Japanese political films over half a century old. As the film progresses, the focus shifts from Kinta to Haruko, with the storyline almost outgrowing the former’s immature and selfish outlook to focus on Haruko’s determination to find a better life. This is the overarching statement achieved in the film, with Imamura drawing on his own experiences as a black-marketeer with American soldiers to clearly point out to any viewers willing to look under the cracking façade that the post-war occupation of Japan by the US Forces with creating a disjointed and self-destructive society in which nobody could hope to build a future for themselves.

The Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD of Pigs and Battleships + Stolen Desire is available to purchase now.

西銀座駅前 / Nishi-Ginza Station (Shohei Imamura, 1958)

Hidden away on the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray release of The Insect Woman is the second feature film directed by Shohei Imamura, Nishi-Ginza Station. It isn’t as fondly remembered as the main feature and for good reason, featuring almost none of the hallmarks of a director who would later come to be regarded as one of the greatest in Japanese film history.

The story plays second fiddle to the music, the recurring titular song as sung by Japanese crooner Frank Nagai. You’ll be forgiven for thinking you’re about to watch one of the worst musicals of all time after the first five minutes, though thankfully the support cast only get that one chance to derail both the song and the feature. What isn’t overly evident is that it is for all intents and purposes an extended music video for Nagai’s follow-up to his previous hit “Let’s Meet in Yarakucho”, a result of Imamura’s refusal to give the song a full playthrough at any point of the film.

One of Imamura's finest hours in film... can be found elsewhere on the same disc.

One of Imamura’s finest hours in film… can be found elsewhere on the same disc.

The supporting story relates in no way to the words of the song, indeed contradicting it in many ways. It tells the story of a man name Oyama (Yanagisawa Shin’ichi), whose suppression at the hands of his wife Riko (Yamaoka Hisano) leads him to bouts of daydreams of his former days in the Japanese army, particularly a dream where he is trapped on an island with a beautiful girl named Sally (Hori Kyoko). When his wife and two children take a short break, he is encouraged by his friend Dr Asada (Nishimura Ko) to go out on the town and have a one night stand whilst he has the chance, under the pretense that he will clear his head, stop daydreaming and concentrate on his life as a family man.

It has its charms at times, but the rushed pace means it is littered with unexpected jumps that are at odds with the subtly developing romance between Oyama and love interest Igarashi Yuri (also played by Hori Kyoko). Imamura’s original screenplay was probably haphazardly chopped to get the running time down. Regardless, his third film of 1958 – Endless Desire – was on the horizon and there wasn’t time to make the film work.

Nishi-Ginza Station is certainly not amongst Imamura’s finest work, but will find a place in the interests of fans of his famed later works.

The Masters of Cinema dual-format release of The Insect Woman and Nishi-Ginza Station is available to purchase now.