Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman follows the life of Tomé, a woman born in a rural village who eventually finds her way to Tokyo before returning to the countryside at the film’s end. Released fifty years ago, The Insect Woman was an important film in the developing Japanese new wave cinema embodied by young directors like Imamura. The film can be seen as a response to Imamura’s one-time mentor Ozu, whose precise and formal style represented the quintessential Japanese film aesthetic that prevailed at the time.
The opening scene shows a beetle struggling to cross difficult terrain. After this we witness Tomé’s own birth in impoverished rural Japan. Imamura does not romanticize village life; the people are loutish and bawdy, but also pragmatic. Tomé is illegitimate, and there are repeated echoes of incest and troubling father-daughter relationships throughout the film. The meaning of marriage is unclear. The Insect Woman’s life is a struggle, and like an insect she advances through her life with tenacity. She goes from mill worker, to maid, to prostitute, to brothel madam, and then in one of the cycles that marks Imamura’s work, devolves back to cleaning woman before leaving the city just as she had arrived. Her daughter Nobuku supplants Tomé, just as Tomé herself supplanted the brothel madam Suma. Imamura takes delight in repeating scenes and dialog with different characters, such as when Tomé manipulates a reluctant call girl named Midori precisely as she herself was manipulated by Madam Suma. The film’s final scene shows Tomé struggling like an insect to climb a mountain in, brought low and older but otherwise unchanged by her life.
Criterion has done a beautiful job restoring the film. Unusually for its time, Imamura shot The Insect Woman entirely on location rather than on studio sets. This restricted his options in terms of lighting and lens work, and Imamura made the most of high contrast lighting, dramatic overhead shots, and unexpected freeze frames. The film’s style is marked by long takes with fixed camera positions and closeups that let actors move in and out of the frame, horizontally and vertically. There are strong contrasts between foreground and background figures, and we frequently see movement in one plane and not in the other. Watching the film makes me feel like I am sitting with Imamura as he experiments and innovates on the fly.
A nice surprise is that Imamura did not use Tome’s story to make grand pronouncements about Japanese society. The film plays out loosely against major historical events without trying to make an awkward parallel between her life and Japanese history. The plot is enjoyably lean, and waxes neither melodramatic nor philosophical. If the film has a message, it is that life is a struggle and women in particular do what they must as opportunities present themselves. “Mama, what other way is there?” Noboku asks Tomé. The Insect Woman is an unvarnished, almost documentary examination about how a woman experienced and moved through her environment. She experiences no obligatory personal growth, psychological change, or character development as a result of events in her life. The Insect Woman is a key film marking a transition in Japanese cinema, but maybe more importantly it is just a wonderful chance to watch a filmmaker creatively experimenting with his medium. Recommended.