‘The Insect Woman’ or — A Brutal Stomping?

Ow! Ow! You know when something heavy lands on Spongebob Squarepants and he ends up squashed like a pancake? That’s how I feel this morning after watching Shōhei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’ (1963) because bugger me, this film is brutal and I’m still recovering from having been beaten flat by it. Ow!

‘The Insect Woman’, or ‘Entomological Chronicles of Japan’ (how’s THAT for a snappy title?!), has a striking (and VERY Imamura) opening: a beetle, shot in microscopic close up, indefatigably marches across the soil before seeming to rear up, towering over us and freezing as the soundtrack delivers a blast of aggressive dissonance. The beetle represents the lead female character, Tome, and her resilience in life. It also represents Japan because Tome represents Japan. It might also represent the film itself because ‘The Insect Woman’ seems to move forward like a giant arthropod, every feet of film landing with a thud as it tirelessly tramples over us. No wonder my shoulders hurt this morning!

Tome is born in 1918 and into conditions of extreme poverty and abuse. In fact, the conditions of poverty and abuse are SO extreme I was unsure if I was remembering them correctly. I checked this morning and yeah, they’re pretty fucked up conditions of poverty and abuse. This is Imamura breaking taboos so we should accept that we’re going to end up with splinters in our eyes has we witness him furiously smashing these conventions to bits.

We then follow Tome’s life over the course of the following 45 years as she (and we!) endures life in Japan as the country changes from a pre to a post war state, and everything Tome endures is either some form of sexual, financial or social exploitation. Yet Tome never shows self-pity or is portrayed with a shred of pathos (this is an entomological study, remember) but rather demonstrates the innate self-interest of survival. Imamura never flinches away, except to ram a point home or make a shocking joke, and the effect is, quite frankly, impressive yet utterly exhausting. ‘The Insect Woman’ pummeled me and pummeled me hard. It pummeled me into my sofa so deep I had to struggle to get out afterwards. It’s pummeling, punishing and pulverising and I have the bruises to prove it.

Not that it’s all pummeling grimness as the film is also frequently beautiful. The only problem is that it’s pummeling even in its beauty! For example — there’s a truly gorgeous moment of tender, quiet and delicate composition when Tome and the young girl in her care are cleaning house together. Tome comes to the foreground, tidying in front of the camera and filling most of the screen whilst, in the background, we can see the child engaging in parallel play as she copies the adult. These two humans then blend perfectly together, their actions taking on a precise choreography of gracefully layered profiles… and then BANG!!!!… the kid suddenly falls off her chair, knocks and pan of boiling water over herself and is scalded to death! The film hard edits its way out of this and this lack of ANY form of lingering sentimentality is not only a horrific shock but, dare I say it, also horrifically funny? I mean, I know Imamura has a dark sense of humour but even I was thinking “Oh, come on!” Either way, my jaw hit the floor as hard as the kid did.

Or take the moment when two women are out walking and chatting happily away when, with perfect timing, an American bomber passes by reminding us Japan is under military occupation and all that that implies. Yet the camera doesn’t cut away after the plane has passed, instead following the women further and focusing on minute actions after the spectacle in the sky. It’s really quite remarkable.

These impacts occur with a relentless regularity, landing like pummeling cinematic insectoid footfalls as the movie marches over us, oblivious to our screams of pain.

So the movie is thematically complex. Yet it’s also chronologically complex as even though time is inexorably progressing forward there are still little temporal eddies and whirlpools popping into existence so even though time is linear there’s an occasional circularity to the temporal structure. “I learned how to reverse today” a character announces after a driving lesson, although the Imamuraian interpretation we’re viewing it through means we have to wonder if she has literally learned how to reverse the day. This is a chronologically slippery and complex film and, much like his ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (1979), you could spend hours analysing the temporal structure of this film alone.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough Imamura also buggers about with space, too, often freezing moments to create space/time jumps or navigating Tome through carefully constructed crowds of people. Indeed, it would be interesting to contrast Imamura’s use of space to that of Aki Kaurismäki as both were influenced by Ozu, although whereas Kaurismäki takes this “Japanese” approach to rid his screen of any excessive melodrama or emotion, Imamura is an iconoclast, blowing everything to pieces in order to heighten the emotions to ridiculous degrees. This film is NOTHING like ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) in the slightest.

‘The Insect Woman’ is a fascinating, ferociously complex movie and one that finds all of Imamura’s preoccupations — the underbelly of society, colonial Japan, patriarchy — fully on display, but it is a brutal and exhausting watch. All Imamura’s films have an element of humour which aids in their digestion but the comedy here is so bleak, so dark that it often feels like sadism. It’s not, though, as there is too much going on here for it to be dismissed as such but the experience is still tough, and when all the film’s elements do begin to coalesce towards the climax we discover we are dealing with something so idiosyncratically Japanese that Imamura’s statement that his films shouldn’t be decipherable to anyone that’s not Japanese bears some credence.

I’m going to stop typing now as my neck hurts, my shoulders ache and my spine is heavily bruised after the insect woman stomped all over me. Ow!

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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