In 1956, there were two major arrivals of new wave filmmaking. The first was the French, who came to prominence with the blossoming of the Cahiers du cinéma critics; the second was the Japanese, who came to be seen as imitators rather than originators. Unfortunately, history has played a hand in imparting us with some untruths. The fact remains that both were fruitful in establishing new techniques and equally able to transfer their own brands of rebellious and inventive filmmaking.
On the Japanese side were the likes of Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, Masahiro Shinoda, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and a former assistant to one Yasujirō Ozu named Shohei Imamura, who later chronicled the appeal of the Japanese New Wave in its fullest. The movement’s respect for social issues and marginalised characters pitted it against the more sombre appeal of the Japanese old guard, who were becoming unrepresentative of the country’s youth. Alongside other filmmakers of the day, Imamura emerged as a director capable of approaching the difficult politics of the time and highlighting the way World War II had created a unique rift between young and old.
Many of Imamura’s early films were set in isolating urban environments, but his 11thfilm, The Profound Desires of the Gods, moved away from this entirely. Set on a fictionalised Okinawan Island, the film contemplates the strange nature of those living away from city life. It muses on the fates and beliefs of people who still believe in the mythology of Japan and settles on a reflection of the fate of so many older pictures soon to be bulldozed in favour of the enduring process of modernisation.
The Profound Desires of the Gods was shot entirely on the island of Ishikagi, but the film centres around a fictional placed known as Kurage. An engineer arrives in search of water for a mainland Japanese sugar company, and he’s soon assisted by Kametaro, a member of the strange Futori family — a prominent kinship, reviled by the other islanders and labelled as ‘beasts’ for their infamous for incestuous relations and damaging of the local ecology. But despite their strange customs, the Futori family becomes accepted by the engineer, who sees them as everything that mainland Tokyo isn’t. He becomes enamoured by the family’s sexually charged and dim-witted daughter, Noriko, and soon lends an unwillingness to leave the island.
In turn, the engineer comes to know all about the anointed servants, still appeasing the Gods through their age-old regard for mythology. In a romantic notion, they believe Kurage was created after a rock was thrown into the sea, and much of the film centres on their relationship and shows us a world outside of modernity. Throughout much of his 60s work, Imamura often examined the balance between ordinary and unordinary people, and in The Profound Desire of the Gods, he finds an exceptional way of highlighting the extremity of this concept.
The proceeding strangeness of the film — complete with images of ghosts, possessed humans, and epic natural landscapes – culminates in a vision of the extreme otherness of 1960s Japan. A bit like a Japanese Wicker Man, the regard for presenting loyalty to the idea that humans are merely servants of the natural landscape is high, and Imamura’s film revels in cutting towards the throng of animals, wildlife and sea creatures. Living in conjunction with the Futoris and the engineer, his film excavates the thin line that exists between man and beast (shown here living in complete unison) and moves swiftly into the realm of a nature documentary and fictive social anthropology.
Imamura ends up in a position much like one of the film’s recurring characters: a minstrel who sings songs to the children about how the island came to be. Like the minstrel does for us, Imamura acts as a filmic facilitator, using an excessive story that turns into a sprawling, lengthy and completely messy way of framing a part of Japan most won’t know ever existed. In turn, The Profound Desires of the Gods unearths the surface of tradition, taking aim at the way it was soon forgotten after the heavy-hitting combo of the Meiji Restoration and World War II.
Of course, The Profound Desires of the Gods is ludicrously nonsensical at times, but as Imamura’s first colour picture, the film represents the Japanese New Wave’s most definitive example of excess. The production mirrors its own wide-screen photography, and the film’s box-office failure had two major impacts: it pushed Imamura outside of mainstream film-making completely and resulted in the studio who backed the film, Nikkatsu, into such a dire financial position that they spent the next two decades making Roman porno films.
In the end, Imamura ended up much like the inhabitants of his own film — vilified, and a barbarian (of the film scene). He wouldn’t arrive in civil Japanese parlance until almost a decade later (with the magnificent Vengeance Is Mine), but now, almost 50 years later, we can easily appreciate Imamura’s 1968 release for its luscious photography and grand expressions. Here in the West, we tend to look at Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate as the ultimate example of film excess, but if Japan has an equivalent, then it’s definitely The Profound Desires of the Gods.