Friday, March 11, 2011

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) by Shôhei Imamura

Shôhei Imamura was already a well known name in Japanese cinema by 1968, having worked as an assistant to legendary film-maker Yasujirō Ozu and with a string of light-comedy, drama and documentary successes under his belt. 1968's Profound Desires of the Gods was to be his biggest undertaking yet, however the film's production was fraught with problems, running wildly over-budget and with the original shooting schedule of 6 months spiralling to 18 months by the films completion, a lot was riding on the success of the film, for both Imamura and production company Nikkatsu - unfortunately for both, the film was a huge failure at the box-office, too obscure and unconventional to gain the mainstream success it's production costs demanded. After it's failure Imamura retreated to documentary work for more than a decade, while Nikkatsu would not make such a lavish, high budget production again for many years. This huge failure probably goes some way to explain the film's lack of recognition on the international stage. For many years it was entirely unavailable to English speaking audiences, but thankfully that all changed last year with Eureka! entertainment's deluxe blu-ray release finally opening up Imamura's lost and misunderstood masterpiece to an international audience.

Profound Desires of the Gods is an engaging, provocative and bizarre piece that ostensibly explores on a number of different levels the duality of Japan's relationship with it's own culture and tradition versus the tide of modernisation and influence from the outside world. The story takes place on the fictional, but obviously Okinawa-inspired, southern Japanese island of Kurage and centres on the lives of the Futori family, who hold the claim to the oldest blood-line on the island. It is quickly made apparent that the Futori's are heavily inter-bred and are shunned and ostracised by the island's community, who refer to them as 'beastly' and believe that their incest is responsible for the islands misfortune. The family's patriarch, old and possibly-senile Yamamori, is both Father and Grandfather to Toriko, a dumb-witted girl whose childlike manner belies her almost feral desire for sex, while Toriko's Mother and Yamamori's Granddaughter Uma is a noroor seer, who lives away from the family at the local shrine (the last remaining fresh water source on the island). Meanwhile, Uma's Son Kametaro is the most normal of the group and struggles to come to terms with his incestuous feelings for his sister Toriko and the islanders distaste for his family, while his Father and Yamamori's son Nekichi is imprisoned by his Father at the bottom of a flooded pit for his crimes against the community (dynamite fishing, and attempting an illicit incestuous relationship with their seer, his sister Uma) and given the near-impossible task of dislodging a huge boulder that has blocked the flow of water to the island's rice fields.

The rice fields point to a recurring parallel in the film, representing Japan's traditional agricultural past versus the modern uptake of sugar farming that the islanders turn to after the rice fields become untenable. Yamamori's desire to see the rice fields restored represents his families struggle to retain their ways in the face of the islanders scorn, while the incestuous relationship his family is born from and the parallel it poses to the islands' creation myth (where two sibling deities are married) represents the uneasy relationship some have with their superstitious past and their desire to see it forgotten from the islands culture. This is the central theme of the film, which in itself is a product of the mindset of Japan as a whole at the time the film was made, a Japan almost embarrassed by it's past and wanting to be perceived as modern thinking on the world stage. Although the Futori's incest marks them as outcasts and the negative results of such relationships are on display for all to see, Imamura effectively paints the family as sympathetic characters, symbolising traditions and religious and superstitious beliefs that fall in the face of modernisation, while casting a disapproving eye on the effects Western influence ultimately has on the island.

Profound Desires of the Gods is a complex and often bewildering film that moves at a disjointed, almost leisurely pace. Imamura has us firmly positioned entirely as voyeurs for much of the film, always watching events unfold at a distance, his characters enveloped by wide-angle shots of the beautiful Okinawan scenery that provides us with a cinematic feast for the eyes. His themes of east versus west and tradition versus progress are always present, yet never hammered home until the films climax, leaving the viewer to piece together the entangled web of the Futori's relationships and admire the films cinematography and the natural beauty of Okinawa. And in that regard, the film is a huge success, making up for what it lacks in pacing and narrative with sheer visual beauty and a deeper subtext that ultimately paints Kurage island and it's inhabitants as an allegory for what Imamura perceived as an increasing abandonment of Japanese culture and tradition to serve modern and Western needs. Surreal and thoughtful throughout, accompanied by beautiful and expertly shot visuals and with a message that's as pertinent today as it was then, Profound Desires of the Gods most certainly isn't a film for everyone, but it is in equal turns an epic and singular piece that surely must rank among Imamura's best.

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