THE INSECT WOMAN (’63) is not easy viewing. Shôhei Imamura’s film recounts the hard-fought life of Tome (Sachiko Hidari), a fatherless peasant woman born into abject poverty in rural Japan. Beginning with her birth in 1918 and concluding sometime after WWII, the film takes place over three turbulent decades in which Tome faces sexual abuse at the hands of her dimwitted stepfather and is provoked into a life of servitude and prostitution by her unsympathetic mother. Historical events that transformed the country during wartime playout in the background, propelling the drama forward while paralleling Tome’s personal story of endurance.

This was Shôhei Imamura’s sixth film for Nikkatsu following his controversial PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (‘61), which went over budget during production causing major friction between the director and the studio. According to an interview with Japanese critic Tadao Sato, conflicts with Nikkatsu forced Imamura to take a two-year hiatus from filmmaking and he spent his time working on various writing projects including stage plays and screenplays for FOUNDRY TOWN (’62) and SAMURAI NO KO (’63). When he wasn’t writing Imamura, along with his friend and screenwriting partner Keiji Hasebe, frequented the white light (non-professional) district of Tokyo. There the two men befriended an older waitress working at a brothel who agreed to share her life story with them. Imamura met with the woman privately filling multiple notebooks with her anecdotes, which became the basis of the screenplay for INSECT WOMAN.

In Japan, the film’s title translates as The Entomological Chronicles of Japan and Imamura opens his movie with a provocative close-up of a beetle struggling to ascend a dirt hill. The image of a determined insect (at the time considered one of the few creatures that could survive an atomic bomb attack) is mirrored at the end of the film by Tome as she labors to climb a difficult mountain while making her way back to the farming community where she was born. Our heroine is as self-persevering as the beetle and throughout the course of the film, Tome meets every challenge that comes her way with a steadfast determination to survive against all odds.

Imamura is regularly singled out as one of the key directors of the Japanese New Wave but his obsession with social anthropology instills his films with a documentary quality that sets him apart from many of his peers. This can be an asset as well as a detriment to enjoying his work. To his credit, the director tackles challenging subjects like prostitution with an uncritical and academic eye, and there is rarely any moralizing in his films. As a result, his clinical approach to filmmaking can also make it difficult to sympathize with his characters who are frequently complex and disagreeable individuals that display appalling or even criminal lapses in judgment and rarely learn from their mistakes. Even Tome, the invincible INSECT WOMAN, is not particularly likable but her fortitude is admirable.

Imamura shot INSECT WOMAN on location in cramped Japanese homes and apartment buildings while recording live sound. This strategy proved difficult for his cast and crew, but it lent the production a gritty naturalism and distinct style. Imamura also frequently employed a telephoto lens, which can compress space and makes the film feel utterly claustrophobic. Bodies are crowded together and piled on top of one another. Individuals are forced to eat, bathe and procreate in these crowded spaces that often resemble cages or animal sties. The prison-like atmosphere makes Tome’s plight seem particularly difficult to overcome. No matter where she goes or how much she longs to escape her surroundings, the squalor and despair cling to her as well as her family members.

When asked by a critic to define his work, Imamura once said, “My heroines are true to life – just look around you at Japanese women. They are strong, and they outlive men. Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s FLOATING CLOUDS (55) and Mizoguchi’s THE LIFE OF OHARU (’52) don’t really exist.” In this regard, Tome is a radical departure from many of the Japanese female protagonists that came before her. But Imamura didn’t create Tome in a vacuum. Credit should go to the nameless woman whose true-life story inspired THE INSECT WOMAN’s grim narrative. And actress Sachiko Hidari should be applauded for delivering a brave performance that imbued her character with a sensual earthiness and unbreakable resolve. Tome may not be the most sympathetic heroine in Japanese cinema but she’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable. It is not surprising that Hidari’s portrayal earned her ample acclaim including the Berlin Film Festival and Kinema Jumpo awards for Best Actress in 1964.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Note: Originally published at FilmStruck.com