‘Profound Desire of The Gods’ or — The Best Incest Island Movie Ever Made?

Of course, the question I was asking myself last night was — “Do I really want to watch a 3 hour long Japanese movie about incest on a toxic island?” It didn’t seem like the most enjoyable way to spend an evening. Turns out I not only loved it but I think you will too because Shohei Imamura’s ‘Profound Desire of The Gods’ (1968) is one hell of a movie even if this hell might seem like a hard sell to those curious.

On the fictional Okinawa island of Kurage lives the Futori family. We are not sure when this is all set; it could be the modern day but we feel the undertow tug of prehistory. The Futori’s live in the mud, their house made of sticks, their dwellings indistinguishable from the infinite sea of the chaotic natural world surrounding them. The Futoris are considered beasts by the other islanders because the father of the Futoris mated with his own daughter to produce the family, a family who then marry their own siblings. Blame is cast back towards the father who defends his incestuous acts as partaking in the impotent power of Kurage, the island being the product of the waste materials of an incestuous relationship between two brother/sister gods.

The Futori family are ‘backward’ but they are also the island’s shamans, charged with tending the island’s only pure water supply. However, years ago, after one of the Futori sons had returned from war, a storm hurled and deposited a massive boulder on-top of the sacred spring so the Futori’s have spent the following years digging a huge hole to topple the large rock into. This will allow the island’s fields to be irrigated again. Until this Sisyphean task is completed the Futoris can never leave Kurage.

Then, one day, an engineer arrives on the island from Tokyo assigned with the job of locating a decent water supply for the island’s sugar cane factory. Not surprisingly this brings him into conflict with the island’s superstitions and taboos and as he digs deeper, not only into the earth but the island’s mythology, the question soon becomes whether it will be civilisation or ‘nature’ that will triumph.

So a film about rampant incest seen through an anthropological gaze concerning water distribution against the backdrop of the shredding of the post-war Japanese psyche might not seem very appealing or fun, and for the first thirty minutes or so it pretty much isn’t, but the real shock of ‘Profound Desire of The Gods’ is how incredibly, and I mean INCREDIBLY, funny it is because even though Imamura’s typical obsessions are here writ large — the impact of American occupation on Japanese identity, the purity of appetites over morality, a detached eye — what’s also present is Imamura’s incredibly strong vein for dark comedy which takes a repulsive concept and, like an inbred maniac digging a never ending hole, mines it for everything he can. The deeper and darker the film gets the harder the jokes hit. The result is, with the exception of Gore Verbinski’s ‘Mouse Hunt’ (1997), what might be the funniest movie I’ve seen so far this year. Oh god, I laughed hard at this.

The first forty minutes or so play out relatively conventionally with Imamura shooting human life in an almost Herzog-ian style, the camera simply following these human creatures as they scuttle amongst the rocks whilst engaged in direct physical tasks. But, like an inbred nymphomaniac, Imamura’s films are utterly untamed as before long profound desires are fully flowing and overwhelming not just the islanders but the viewer as well as the ‘insanity’ of existence spills out everywhere. Imagine a cross between F.W. Murnau’s ‘Tabu’ (1931) (an almost documentary view of island life and the breaking of customs) and the free-wheeling madness of Emir Kusturica and you’ve got a bit of an idea of what’s going on here.

For example’ there’s a remarkable sequence were a tropical storm hits the island, lifting up roofs and dropping them like toys as people scurry for cover. It’s eye-popping in its execution but hilarious in its impact and we can feel Imamura almost looking at us and asking — “Did you really think I didn’t know a film about an incestuous island and mad gods wasn’t a crazy idea?” This borderline surrealist humour means the film barrels along and combining that with the fact that you actually end up caring and becoming caught up in the crazy Futori family’s fate means ‘Profound Desire of The Gods’ is blisteringly entertaining.

The final hour culminates with Imamura utilising some stunning magic-hour cinematography that rivals Malick at his best to draw the viewer into an intense psychological space. The naturalism is still front and centre but Imamura pulls in effects and dreamlike imagery with total skill and we realise we have been living in a place that doesn’t actually exist; the only real thing here might be our passions.

I’d long heard of Imamura as an ‘anthropologist’ filmmaker, looking at human life with a detached eye, but had never quite fully grasped what was meant by that but in ‘Profound Desire of The Gods’ it is fully and explicitly evident and I, finally, get what is meant. Yet it is what Imamura does with that approach that is so stimulating that it’s irresistibly intoxicating. He focuses on the mess, on the mud of human existence, using the incest thread to puncture the veneer of modern life, as well as to shock the audience, in a way very few others films come close to achieving.

‘Profound Desires of The Gods’ is a very difficult movie to enter into; the opening scenes of abuse and depravity are intensely uncomfortable and alienating almost teasing the viewer to walk out. It has psychological and sociological depth to spare combined with an audacity which constantly threatens to crush it into annihilation or lift it to exaltation. But when Imamura’s subversive humour kicks in, and it does big time, this film fucking flies like no other. Come for the profundity but stay for the comedy.