Practically every movie Shohei Imamura ever made could have been called Basic Instinct: the late, lamented Japanese New Waver (subject of a current BAM retro) famously summed up his career by saying “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure,” and, to a (desperate) man, his characters are driven by the twin elemental concerns of Flesh and Cash.
Take, then, The Pornographers, about a man who scratches out a living making dirty movies. Instinct doesn’t get much baser than when the pursuits of pleasure and survival are intertwined, and so the social structures Imamura introduces — family, school, religion, the army — run on impulse, status a matter of money and sex. Fittingly, the movie’s recklessly achronological and tonally crazed: bawdy set pieces, documentary verisimilitude (foreshadowing his 70s nonfiction films), and stylized hallucinations. Equally appropriately, Imamura represents this Darwinian pressure cooker with a supremely cluttered frame, and by positioning his camera behind a menagerie of foreground obstacles: barred windows, passed-out drunk girls, racing speedboats, a fishtank with and without its primary resident — an overfed carp that may or may not be the reincarnation of the pornographer’s common-law wife’s late first husband. Recall Imamura’s other famous self-assessment: “I make messy films.”
He could also make a mess of history: Eijanaika, set in Edo in the tumultuous year of 1866, is panoramically plotted (the narrative emanating outward from a central couple, the strains in their marriage a microcosm for Japan amid the strain of modernization), but the large cast and multiple intrigues are less intricate or epic than sheer bustle, matching his busy visuals. Cash and flesh rule: in the daringly extended climactic sequence, the lower classes riot over the cost of food, can-can dancing their way to the shogun’s doorstep. (Imamura was a director uniquely suited to the carnivalesque.)
Imamura’s career-capping trio of relaxed charmers settle into their basically instinctively mess like a pig into shit. Palme d’Or winner The Eel, starring the redoubtable Koji Yakusho as a rehabilitated wife-murderer, draws suspense from its eccentricities, while Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is a lovingly rendered dirty joke about an economically and emotionally depressed salaryman (Yakusho again) tapping into the life force courtesy a woman who orgasms like an uncapped fire hydrant. But my favorite of the three is Dr. Akagi, about a perpetually white-suited local g.p. who, with his band of irregulars (an orphaned fishergirl and occasional prostitute, a whiskey priest, a morphine-addled surgeon, an escaped Dutch p.o.w), dashes around the countryside in the last days of WWII, waging a private war against illness-as-metaphor: he’s salvaging Japan’s integrity by battling a hepatitis epidemic. Mostly, though, it’s a movie drowning in nouns: you want to list the sheer volume of things Imamura lavishes with vulgar affection — yams and hard-boiled eggs, straw hats and air-raid helmets, microscopes and arc lights, grave robberies and prison raids, whales and mushroom clouds — and sigh, “What a mess.”