Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Profound Desire of the Gods

Japanese director Shohei Imamura made a career out of casting a sardonic eye towards society and sympathizing with the plight of outcasts. But he also possessed a benign fascination with the peculiarities of human communities and the way baser urges cannot be repressed by civil society, all of which come to bear in his 1968 film, The Profound Desire of the Gods, an immense three-hour epic of a remote island community.

The film focuses on the inbred Futori clan, pariahs of this resplendent tropical paradise. One of the sons, Nekichi, is even kept chained in a pit, slowly digging out a hole so that an enormous boulder (placed there by a tidal wave supposedly as the gods’ punishment for the wicked ways of the family) will fall into the earth and allow the family to reclaim the use of its rice paddy. Compounding his sins is his love for his sister, Uma, a priestess who is also the mistress of Ryu, the island’s leading businessman. Making up the rest of the clan is Nekichi’s father, Jaja, a befuddled old man who also married his own sister, and Nekichi’s two children, half-witted, lusty daughter Toriko and son Kametaro, the only member of the clan who aspires to leave the island.

The basic plot sounds almost cliché—an engineer from Tokyo arrives to help find a freshwater well on the drought-plagued island so that his company can build a factory to process the sugar cane grown there. This big-city outsider in a remote rural location premise is by no means fresh, but it is typically played for light farce, not the frenzied anthropological melodrama that Imamura sustains here. He envisions an entire culture for the island, complete with pagan rituals and local creation mythology, and then sets it into conflict with the industrial capitalism brought by the engineer.

There is a density of incident and richness of implication here that you might find in an epic novel, and Imamura’s style rises to the challenge. The nature photography in the film is stunning, and the animal world is omnipresent, always watching over the action like taciturn, troubled gods (as one character explains of the island’s religion, their gods are the whole of nature, right down to the grass). But Imamura is just as skilled with filming the human animals. I’ve never paid much attention to the style of Imamura’s films before—he seems like a director more concerned with effectively serving the story rather than creating prettified images—but the entire film is constructed with meticulous intelligence and care. Conversations—the stumbling block that separates the good director from the mediocre—become riveting with their complex layers of competing action. With the camera typically set at a distance, Imamura creates webs of relationships within a single shot while letting us witness the characters in their environment, at the mercy of their gods.

Even though the film evinces nostalgia for a natural world lost to industrialization—most eloquently in a shot of a lizard’s tail severed by a bulldozer and left writhing on the jungle floor—Imamura is after a mood more complicated than mere yearning for rustic simplicity. As is common with his films, he uses often-depraved characters to tease out the primal urges denied by polite society—characters who as a result of revealing such truths are cast out and despised by the community. Social order maintains itself by the people uniting against the outcasts, such as in the truly terrifying scene when a group of villagers gather around Nekichi’s pit one night and start to throw dirt and rocks into it while he cowers and begs absolution for his every sin. Black silhouettes rim the top of the pit while Nekichi is brightly lit below—exposed and vulnerable, while the villagers can hide in the anonymous violence of the mob claiming to act for the good of the community.

As Imamura’s outcasts re-enact the myths of the island they become stand-ins for the gods themselves. The Futoris evolve from social rejects to social myths that enter the fabric of the island’s culture (it seems even outsiders have their place in society). As the island opens up to the world, the primal passions of the Futoris remain, albeit coded in the language of legend and superstition. But what they represent can never be fully repressed or removed, and the film leaves us with the ever-present possibility of the irrational world derailing the rational—the inescapable spectre of our own animal nature that haunts us no matter how many gods we kill.

Note: Shohei Imamura’s films have become increasingly available in recent years, but The Profound Desire of the Gods, arguably his masterpiece, has yet to be commercially released in North America in any form. Desperate to find a copy for myself, I took to the shady cybernetic underworld and chanced upon an excellent quality DVD rip with good subtitles. If you have the patience to download 15 Rapidshare files (which I hope you will), the film can be found here.

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