Candid camera

Shohei Imamura captures Japan's red lights and black markets

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Shohei Imamura's 1961 film Pigs and Battleships opens with the impressive sight of gleaming modern buildings lining the landscape of an industrialized port town. This would-be idyllic image of newfound cooperation between the Japanese and the Americans is swiftly subverted with the upward yank of a crane shot, which ends with a bird's-eye view of the neighboring area. Our new vantage point reveals the run-down, bustling alleys of the outlying red-light district, conspicuously teeming with carousing American sailors on shore leave and equally garrulous touts who aggressively steer the former at every turn to mob-run brothels, like farmers corralling swine.

Often considered the first real Imamura film, Pigs and Battleships is a wry satire of postoccupation Japan, where MacArthurization had laid the foundations for both a thriving black market and a fledgling democracy. Imamura would continually return to that distant perch arrived at in the film's opening minutes, to better observe a Japan that lay just outside the established frame. The Brueghelian panorama of black-market profiteers, shopworn bar hostesses, American soldiers behaving badly, and amateur pornographers he captured from the 1960s onward is on full display in the 12 remaining features of the Pacific Film Archive's current embarrassment of riches "Shohei Imamura's Japan."

Imamura's perspective is more akin to that of a child who, having picked up a rock, becomes fascinated with the squirming, dark world that's thriving underneath than it is to that of a detached anthropologist, which his extended shots and lack of flashy editing sometimes lead critics to take him for. Social critique, while certainly present in Imamura's films, is always paired with a certain delectation in watching the tawdry and the grotesque.

In early Imamura films like Pigs and Battleships and the black caper comedy Endless Desire (1958), in which five Osaka lowlifes celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Allied victory by plotting to steal a hidden cache of Army-issued morphine, we see a Japan flush with the newfound freedom unleashed and bequeathed by the occupation and emboldened by the collapse of imperial authority.

The long hangover that carried into the late-'60s economic boom, exacerbated by the demands of the revitalized radical left for the government to come clean about the World War II skeletons still in its closet, also was not lost on Imamura's camera. He was, after all, a member of the nuberu bagu (taken from the French nouvelle vague) rat pack, the iconoclastic children of Jean-Luc Godard and Coca-Cola who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, chomping at the bit of a weakening studio system. His documentaries from the '70s might be more soft-spoken than Oshima Nagisa's fiery cinematic indictments against the government (Oshima's 1968 Death by Hanging is necessary viewing), but they are no less damning.

A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess (1970) is, as its title indicates, a prostitute's narration of a chronicle from which she and those in her profession were largely occluded. The gradually widening distance between Akaza Etsuko's tale and the official version Imamura contrasts it with via historical footage makes the truism that history is written by the winners feel depressingly deeper than a platitude, despite the director's clearly felt empathy for the bruised woman speaking before him.

In Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute, made three years later, Imamura interviews Zendo Kikuyo, a former karayuki-san, or "comfort woman," living in Malaysia who was forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers on the East Asian front.

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