‘Nishi Ginza Station’ or — Profound Desire of the Clods?
Hang out at Nishi Ginza Station long enough and you’ll encounter every type of human being as they pass to and fro before our eyes. Lounge singer Frank Nagai is our guide tonight, his smooth baritone voice occasionally breaking into his theme song from the ABC nightclub where he performs. He talks to us directly through the camera, a light smile playing on his lips. So what sample of human life will Nagai and director Shōhei Imamura be scrutinsing today and what will we learn from doing so? But before then, let’s have some music!
HARD CUT TO — silhouette of the Tokyo skyline as NISHI GINZA STATION appears in lights accompanied by energetic jazz drumming.
Turns out we end up following hen-pecked pharmacist, Oyama, and his attempt to have an affair whilst his wife and kids are on holiday. Oyama is deeply frustrated, often lapsing into daydreams to escape his “reality”. And plot wise, there’s not much more to it than that. So ‘Nishi Ginza Station’ (1958) is a fluffy slice of musical comedy that culminates in a gag that’s also a moral whilst blending a certain documentary approach with Frank Tashlin style humour, New Wave hipness, social commentary and an exploration of the dynamics of power in an ordinary family.
Yet this is Shōhei Imamura we’re dealing with here so none of this will be “ordinary” in the slightest.
Oyama might be a cowering husband with no backbone but he suffers from blinding visions that transport him to an exotic island where he lives out intense sexual fantasies. Meanwhile Oyama’s best friend, Yasushi, rocks up at the pharmacy where it is casually remarked that he has just castrated a cat. It’s only after this information has been disclosed that we discover Yasushi is a vet, Imamura deliberately withholding this knowledge from us so we can have a few seconds of thrilling bafflement wondering why, exactly, this guy has just been castrating a cat. Yasushi tells Oyama to have an affair; otherwise he’ll regret it on his death bed.
Oyama’s visions, meanwhile, are invading his “reality” meaning he not only has to navigate pulling off an act of infidelity but also keep his world held together in some coherent form, and after a wild, and wildly unsuccessful, night out with Yasushi, along with some highly dodgy seduction advice from a veterinarian assistant, Oyama’s reality is really in danger when he finds himself actually washed up on an exotic island with a beautiful woman where he can now live out his intense sexual fantasies. Everything he has dreamed of is in his reach, if only he has the guts to grasp it. Although should we always believe our eyes? And what is reality anyway? And what is the “real” Japan?
On the surface ‘Nishi Ginza Station’ is a lighter, lesser, inconsequential work by Imamura, even running a scant 53 minutes, about a married man dealing with the frustrations of marriage and modern life. And that’s certainly the case, but if you look closer you’ll find almost all of Imamura’s obsessions and themes contained explicitly here whilst that fluffy humour contains a hidden darkness; it just depends on how you interpret the jokes.
Oyama’s incurable daydreams are the result not just of sexual frustration but also trauma, hinting that Japan itself has been existing in a sort of state of impotent delusion since the War. Oyama’s wife, Riko, represents the Japanese nuclear family unit figuring out how to survive in advanced Capitalism and the modern world. Yet is this unit a natural construct or an affront against nature? The ending of the movie seems to suggest it is a prison which raises the question: what is more important? Survival or desire? Or notice that at the end (spoilers) when Oyama realises what and where this remote, exotic island he’s been washed up on is and that it is modern Japan… and that it is poisonous and fake.
Then there’s the anthropological aspect of Imamura which is fully evident here. People are simply animals which is why Oyama’s provider of romantic support and advice is a vet who sees no discernible difference between a cat and a person.
Also, despite the “contemporary” setting there’s the sense of the primordial at play here. Then again, the primordial is always at play in Imamura’s work, it’s just a case of knowing if we’re dealing with the modern primordial or the primordial primordial. It’s very often both although Imamura often doesn’t see a distinction but more a continuation between the two. This is what makes Oyama’s “island” so fascinating to interpret.
‘Nishi Ginza Station’ might be an early, lightweight work but you can see nearly all of Imamura’s themes being toyed with here — island life and lust (‘Profound Desire of the Gods’), the transactional nature of sex (‘Zegen’), female power (‘The Insect Woman’), raucous urban chaos (‘Pigs and Battleships), modernity vs. the ancient and the trauma of the war on Japanese society (pretty much every Imamura film ever made). Even ‘The Ballad of Narayama’s preoccupation with aging and mortality gets a brief look-in when, after Oyama is touchingly reunited with his loving wife and children, a random old man pops up to violently cough his dying guts up signaling that inescapable death bed of regrets Oyama lives in terror of. It is funny. It completely destroys a beautiful moment. It is totally Imamura.
‘Nishi Ginza Station’ is a very interesting film, specifically due to where it sits in Japanese cinema as well as Imamura’s own filmography. It’s accessible and fun and even though it is somewhat predictable it demonstrates a director with a clear visual style and an even clearer grasp of human nature. He’s simply figuring out, at the start of his career, just how powerful that grasp of his can actually be.