On Shohei Imamura’s “The Insect Woman” (1963): Cycles, Transitions, Ellipses

A still from Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman

The first time I watched Shohei Imamura’s 1963 classic The Insect Woman, it took me a few seconds to understand why its strange ending works. As there were only two or three minutes of the film left, I kept looking at its runtime, thinking “How the hell will this movie end?”, and then it did.

It ends in an ellipsis, but not the sort of cliffhanger one would normally think. It is not like the one closing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which immediately makes sense, as there is a hovering hint of disaster that would be missed were that film “resolved”. Instead, The Insect Woman ends where one would least expect it; in the middle of a long walk the main character is taking. Not only does there not seem to be a logical conclusion to the events in the narrative, but there is no closure at an emotional level, neither.

The reason such an ending works is that Shohei Imamura’s film is about cycles, found between generations, without origin or completion. Were the film to conclude more traditionally, its themes would not be as hard-hitting as they are. Life does not have beginnings or endings as much as it has “transitions”, and although Imamura’s film is, like all art, artifice, it commits to framing this reality. It may be because of this commitment that, although the film sometimes seems like a stream of tragedies in the life of its main character, it never overwhelms nor devolves into melodrama.

The story follows the life of a lower-class woman named Tomé Matsuki (expertly played by Sachiko Hidari), as she survives through Japan during the Second World War and its aftermath. She is born in the countryside. She is the illegitimate daughter of a promiscuous woman and is raised by her mentally disabled stepfather, in a relationship that constantly suggests more.

The film jumps through time in a series of anecdotes, interspersed by an effective use of snapshots, each one acting as a sort of accent to the sequence that came before. These are usually accompanied by a voiceover of Tome’s thoughts, or of pieces of dialogue.

Tomé grows up to work at the village’s factory. After she is summoned by her family and ordered to offer her services to the clan that owns their farm, she is raped and impregnated by the landlord’s son. When she decides to keep her daughter, her mother calls her selfish for doing so.

Seeing such is horrible, but it is counterbalanced by a naturality and attention to detail reminiscent of Ozu, which makes sense considering Shohei Imamura was his assistant for a while. He later distanced himself from the master, which is also evident from seeing this film, as although he shares Ozu’s attention to the mundane, his view of Japanese society strikes one as much more nightmarish.

Eventually, Tomé moves to the city after the war, but after becoming an organizer for the union, her lover is promoted to management, the relationship ends, and she loses her job. She then becomes the maid of a woman infatuated with an American serviceman. She is also employed as the nanny of said woman’s child, but, in a moment of Tomé’s neglect, the girl knocks down a boiling pan and scalds herself to death.

In the hands of a lesser director, this scene would not be as memorable. The entire time leading to the accident the camera remains in one place as you see Tomé daydream, in the foreground, and the girl mess around in the kitchen, in the background. Shohei Imamura leans back, he does not resort to sensationalist editing to create tension, but rather, he lets the audience’s mind edit.

A similar technique is used in the following scene, to greater effect. Here we see Tomé attend for the first time “The Pure Land Sect” and confess her sins to what seems to be their priest, in front of the churchgoers. Here, not only does the great lead performance beam, as we see the character feel sorry for herself for the first time in the film, but, also, one can study the scene’s purposeful presentation; a wide shot of her breaking down while other churchgoers, around, react to her. The camera is, again, stationary, and although Tomé is the center of the image, the viewer can focus on any of the spiteful or disgusted faces present, engaging the mind of the audience at a deeper level than the norm.

After joining the church, Tomé is taken in by a fellow churchgoer who happens to be the owner of a brothel, and this is where a major turning point for her character begins. After finding out the profession of her fellow churchgoer, Tomé is initially put off by it, but when she is offered a job there, she accepts and soon adapts to the lifestyle. And so, she becomes opportunistic. She rats out a co-worker who has been doing outside jobs, thus earning the trust of her boss, only to target her boss in the same manner and take over the business. If the viewer had not yet been sold on Hidari’s brilliance as an actress, now it becomes undeniable, as she pulls off this character development with rare subtlety.

Before the viewer realizes it, and probably before she herself realizes it, Tomé becomes a doppelganger of the woman who took her in from the sect some time ago, and the cyclical structure of The Insect Woman begins to reveal. She has a relationship with her business partner, Karasawa (Seizaburo Kawazu), and her daddy issues become even clearer to the audience. She abuses her workers and is caught assaulting one of them when her grown-up daughter, Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), visits her. When her daughter asks Tomé for money so that she and her boyfriend can start a farm in the countryside, Tomé says no.

Eventually, Tomé is betrayed by one of her workers and goes to jail, her lover becomes her ex-lover, and her daughter tries to get the money for her farm out of Karasawa, by working for him/sleeping with him. When Nobuko confesses to her mother that she has been living with Karasawa, Tomé wails “Don’t you understand why I struggled so hard to raise you?”, but her daughter is unmoved.

After a while, Nobuko escapes to the countryside with Karasawa’s money. Kurosawa asks Tomé to go find her and convince her to return, and the film ends with her sandal breaking, as she struggles through the path towards her daughter’s farm and curses…

Many details reinforce The Insect Woman‘s themes of recurrence, such as the fact that its two main characters, Tomé and Nobuko, are both illegitimate children, and that Nobuko seems to inherit some of Tomé’s issues, but these do not catch my attention as much as the little moments in between, such as when the main character sings and talks to herself as she traverses her house, or when she suggests to one of her friends that she should visit her church, insisting “You go and tell them everything and you feel great afterwards. Really!”. Were it not because of these moments the film would not feel as authentic as it does, but if it wasn’t because of the depth with which Tomé’s character is explored, the film would be a failure.

The Insect Woman‘s opening shows a beetle struggling through challenging terrain, and just like this beetle, the film delves into the trauma of its main character -but her character is never reduced to victimhood. She has a prime, just as she has a downfall, and the film assesses both with a lack of pretense. It is because of this that Tomé feels like a real person, and through her, one can better understand the lives of other Tomés.

Shohei Imamura’s film is a great one, and I think any film lover should check it out at least once, knowing it does not try to engage the viewer by means of overstimulation, as most films do, but quite the opposite. It moves at a pace more akin to life, bidding the mind to replace the spot explosions would normally occupy, to provide a lasting experience.

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Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963). Ed. Matsuo Tanji, dist. Nikatsu.

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