Shohei Imamura: the entomologist perspective on challenged Humanity

Japanese director Shohei Imamura, twice recipiendary of the Palme d'Or at Cannes festival, died last tuesday at the age of 79. I was thinking of posting something on Imamura since but I wanted to have some time to immerse my memory in his movies, I wanted to recreate, with all their original vividness, the impressions his movies had on me. Thanks to the rain, falling quite often to my taste these days, I was able to find some time to pay my humble and personal tribute to a great master of movie making.

I was doing doctoral research at the Jussieu Campus (Université Pierre et Marie Curie et Université Denis Diderot) at the time I saw the first Imamura movie. I liked Jussieu. Compared to other prestigious university campuses in Europe, the place looked ugly, crossed by cold winds during the winter season and seemed unhospitable from the outside. But Jussieu has its hidden charm for me. First it is near Paris's Botanical garden, le jardin des plantes, historical home to the most famous French naturalists, Cuvier, Bernardin de Saint Pierre, the late geologist and mystic of the desert, Théodore Monod and to a beautiful lebanese cedar tree (Cedrus Libani) under which I used to sit at lunch time, talk with friends, sometimes even meet with my husband (we were newlyweds) and when alone, reflect on my work or just dream awake. Next to Jussieu, on the Seine side, three years after the screening of Imamura's masterpiece 'The Ballad of Narayama', opened l'Institut du Monde Arabe with its bold and modern architecture conceived by Jean Nouvel. It is a luminous building reminiscent of Arab architecture dividing the space between light and darkness. The whole setting connected me with Arab culture, not only through its architecture but also through a permanent and a variety of temporary and interesting exhibits. I liked to go there, not only for exhibits; I would spend some time in the bookstore and, when in good company, sip mint tea at their top floor café-restaurant overlooking the Seine. On beautiful days, we would also walk to the Luxembourg or Saint Germain des Prés after work to have a meal, buy a book or go to a movie.
As a non native, walking in a big city is an unsettling experience. You melt in the multitude, leave the inside of yourself, loose your identity and integrate the space, the people, the colors, the sounds and the scents until a practical matter emerges and prompts the awakening. And when you retrieve yourself, you are not the same, you are a slightly different person. The walking journey, the external voyage of the body, had become an internal journey, the journey of the Self.

Although I grew up in a bilingual environment in which we spoke both languages, Arabic and French, and learned about both cultures, sometimes even more the French than the Arab culture and even if everything in me was ready for my immigration to France, I spent the first three years impregnating myself. Living in a new and different cultural environment is a self consuming experience. Either you loose yourself in the process becoming another person without contintuity with your former self, an alien to yourself, or you just become an alien to the other by being statisfied with the external journey without having to go through the internal one, or, and this is the hardest thing to do, you open to the new culture and try to reconciliate your former self with the new one because, after all, they are inhabiting the same body and you become, in the process, a new person, a product of two distinct cultures. I am an introspective person and I was enchanted by the process, going through a voluntary transformation to undertsand the other and make myself understandable, reach a different level of humanity in which local values become less important than the common ones. I knew I had to find a third way in between if I was ever to stay faithful to myself. I think if there was ever to be a genuine sense of freedom in human beings it should resemble these moments where, in the stream of your consciuousness, you decide on the directions (values) for your life by slowly constructing a new set of individual values which transcend the local values, those you learn inside the family, the community and the country.

On a fine day, colleagues at the lab asked me if I was interested in joining them to watch 'The Ballad of Narayama' at the Jussieu ciné club. The club was organised by the the students association who used teaching amphitheaters for lunch time film projections. I have seen 'Metropolis' with the ciné-club on a previous occasion and it was a quite convivial moviegoing. However, I wasn't sure for Imamura. Having to deal with my studies and research and to look for the way out from my internal contradictions, I thought that I wasn't prepared to see 'The Ballad of Narayama' which won the palme d'or at Cannes the year before (1983). I knew nothing of Japan and Japanese filmmaking, I had only knew about Kurosawa who, retrospectively, appear the most western of Japanese moviemakers. I wasn't either prepared for the cruelty, the unromantic entomologist perspective of Imamura on Humans and Nature (I have come across a critique of the movie before). One cannot just enter a whole new world and learn from the experience without having some previous knowledge of it, or I thought so...

But I am an easy moviegoer, it does not mean that I easily appreciate movies, it is actually quite the contrary. But I like movietheaters, they always give me a sense of security, loneliness and at the same time, extreme intimacy, by sharing the experience with so many other people unknown to me. I grabbed my lunch and went to see Imamura's 'Ballad'.

The movie is constructed around the cycle of seasons in a rural Japan stricken by poverty (I am not going to review the movie here, there is a good review of the movie and of Imamura's work on this website with references at the end of the webpage). In the movie, peasants survive like other animals in Nature. To survive, they must do basic things, work for food, eat, marry, reproduce and eventually die after they have accomplished what they can. But poverty makes life difficult and starvation is always around. All becomes intricated in a cycle of sex, birth, survival and death. Sex means childbirth and starvation and so death means less starvation for those who stay. This is why the community adopted a rule; people who attain the age of seventy must be taken to the mountain to die and it is the child who must carry on his back his elder into this journey. The story is told on a rich backdrop of an omnipresent Nature which is shown through long shots of trees, grass, water, insects and other animals. On the top of the death mountain, the grass becomes scarce, the scenery is less sensuous and vibrant, the road is crossed by the skeletons of the village's elderly and the vulture is waiting for the flesh of the newly arrived.

I was shocked by the movie and didn't know what to think of it for a long time but this was a shock that sends you inside yourself looking for real questions and real answers. The movie was a harsh look at challenged humanity. And it takes nothing to challenge our humanity and the formidable civilisations, technologies and cultures we build around it. It takes a starvation, it takes a war and we find ourselves entirely part of Nature, acting according to its laws and not to moral laws. Although Imamura's stand on such issues is completely different from mine because he liked to challenge Japan's great post war industrial and economic success by apprehending such themes in his movies, I thought that Humanity is not tied to technology, civilisation and material well being. I thought that Humanity's main features and what distinguishes us from animals are moral values; the good, the beautiful and the true.

Not everybody looses his humanity under extreme challenges. To loose our humanity is to loose the direction to the good life and to loose the Other from our sight. I believe firmly that, whatever the challenges, we still have a choice as to the moral direction of our life. However, this choice, as dependant as it can be on social rules and customs and stereotypes, cannot be but the sole outcome of an individually deliberative process within a plurality of values. The elderly woman's son didn't want his mother to die according to the rules of the community but he couldn't transcend these rules. Individual moral deliberation is paradoxically helped by the exitsence of the Other as someone who is like me but at the same time different. This Other embodies external values challenging our own. Without values external to our own, there is no real moral deliberation and this is why Imamura's peasants accept the law of Nature, sacrificing the elderly in order to survive continual starvation, because they are a closed society with one set of values.

So I was surprised to read in an interview Imamura gave to the Guardian in 2002 this declaration about the themes of his movies:''I've always wanted to ask questions about the Japanese, because it's the only people I'm qualified to describe" . "I think that Japan on film should be presented in a quiet way, not full of Japanese stereotypes such as kimonos and gardens. I am surprised by my reception in the west. I don't really think that people there can possibly understand what I'm talking about."

If only Imamura Knew that the Kimonos, Zen gardens and Japanese stereotypes are only instruments of social coordination in a small community, only 'local values' that are merely meant to distinguish one society from another. On the contrary, the Japanese values which Imamura tackles in his movies, the non stereotypes, starvation in a small village, wars, the misery of the lower classes of society, human basic emotions, all are Core Human Values or Universal values that can be understood by anybody, everywhere in the world because they are part of the experience of human beings everywhere.

Imamura had also some remarkable reflections on our time; he said in the same interview quoted above: ''I think we've lost our way" . "We've got this wonderful freedom and nobody is doing anything with it."

Indeed, we've lost our way. Because we corrupted our universals (human rights, democracy, religious freedom and freedom of thought), we enclosed people in stereotypes (Jew, Muslim, terrorist, etc...) and we fought these fabricated stereotypes as the real ennemy. We eradicated, and continue to do so, local cultures while at the same time imposing one local culture on all the others as not to permit any real moral deliberation pulling us from local values to a higher and more common moral ground emerging from a dialectical process between our differences.

Imamura is also wrong when he thinks that we still have this wonderful freedom he talked about. As I said before, real freedom emerges at the end of our moral deliberative process when we have to take decisions as to the directions of our life, so if we've lost our way, how can we possibly still have such a freedom ? Imamura was talking from a Marxist, Freudian perspective, a perspective in which freedom means a departing from opressive community and family rules, a soixante-huitard's perspective. However freedom is not to be found in the simple departure from local community rules, the way adolescents acquire or think they acquire their freedom. It is to be found in the dialogue between local values and rules and universals. Universal values are not specific to a community or a society in particular but to the entire Humanity, they are not imposed by the community from the outside but freely chosen by the individual in his quest for the good life. Whenever these values serve best our humanity, we must be able and free to choose them, as individuals, over our local community values. If we are to impose one set of values on the entire world we will be loosing the very essence of what constitutes morality, freedom of will and the very notion of moral choice.

We must stop starving people, making wars, erecting walls, judging on the basis of stereotypes: we must stop challenging our humanity and its universal values. Paradoxically, in our globalised world, and as a result of the fear of being dissolved or transformed into someone else, there is a narrowing in the actual perspectives with which people are looking at other people. Resulting from this narrowing, there are tragic misunderstandings, loss of dialogue and loss in our ability to choose the moral ground on which to build our lives.


thepoetryman said...

Fantastic writing! Loved you last paragraph...Keep up the great work!

Voices like yours are needed!

Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Jeez Sophie, Didn’t know you had lived on the Left Bank of Madinat Bâriz, the place where el Doctor has spent most of his youth!

Sophia said...

Yes doctor de La Vega, I lived in the beautiful city of Paris for eleven years. So we have one more thing in common !

Sophia said...


Thanks for your encouragement.


Wolfie said...

That was beautifully written Sophia, nice.

Mind you, one should also consider that freedom is an expensive luxury which is often achieved at the expense of others. In our wealthy world its easy to forget that sometimes leaving the question; is there enough wealth in the world to give freedom to all through better distribution or is it a utopian pipe-dream? That's what Iamamura was asking too I think as the elderly paid the price for the young to survive.

Sophia said...


How can we possibly wage all these costly wars and not be able to give people across the globe a decent life? I don't think this solution is utopian.
However, and I agree on this with you, it is utopian to beleive that humanity is only made of higher values and moral sentiments and ideals, and this was one of Imamura's constant preoccupations in all his movies. Humanity is a product of Nature, Darwinian Nature. He said: ''I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.''

The thing is that not all people find themselves on the same side of humanity.

Since March 29th 2006