`The Insect Woman` – Interview with Shohei Imamura

Good evening.
I’m Tadao Sato.You just saw The Insect Woman.
The film’s director, Shohei Imamura,
is here as our guest. Good evening.You made Pigs and Battleships
before this film,
and it was very well received. It consolidated
your position as a director. In spite of that,
it took nearly three yearsto bring out your next film,
Insect Woman.
It seems it was a very difficult project.
SHOHEI IMAMURA Why was that? It wasn’t that this film
was difficult to make.When I made
Pigs and Battleships,
I went over budget by about
three million yen, I think. The studio thought
that was outrageous and hung me out to dry. They told me to my face
that they’d punish me that way. So I had no choice. I left Tokyo and went to Mishima, where Kazuo Kitamura’s
parents were living. I took refuge with them,
relying on their kindness. And I simply wrote scripts. During that time of exile,I wrote Foundry Town
for Kirio Urayama.
The Haiyu-za Theater put on
my oddly titled play called Paraji.
The Haiyu Small Theater Group
performed it.I also wrote Samurai’s Child,a film directed
by Mitsuo Wakasugi. I wrote the script. So I was writing scripts
for other people.I also wrote scripts for this film
and Intentions of Murder.
I was rather busy
during those three years. I actually finished writingIntentions of Murder
before Insect Woman,
so I wanted to make them
in that order.
But the studio took a liking
to Insect Woman for some reason,
and they told me make it first.That’s the background. I didn’t know anything
about the situation behind the film. Once it came out, however, its style was unlike
anything seen before. In various ways, it broke from
established filmmaking conventions.Because it was
such an ambitious project,
I thought it took
a long time to get greenlighted.
That wasn’t the case?
– No.
The novel stylistic approach
isn’t much described in the script,
so I don’t think
that was the issue. They just wanted to punish a guy
who didn’t go by their rules. Especially back then, Nikkatsu had
an established line of films starring Yujiro Ishihara
and other actors like him, and they were
churning them out. Films that were different were –
– They didn’t care about those. You persevered
in that sort of environment, and you made films
in a completely new style, and we were very impressed. On the one hand, these lightweight, superficial films
were getting mass-produced. But with this film, you removed all the superficial pleasantness. Instead, you explored
the real nature of human beings, delving relentlessly
in an unprecedented way. How did you get
the idea for this film? In addition to the red-light
and blue-light districts, there used to be a white-light
district back in those days. Nonprofessional women did business
in the white-light district – that is, prostitution. And they had a certain haunt
in Minami-Senju. Urayama and I and friends
used to go there sometimes to drink and raise hell. The head waitress of this joint
was named Shima. She was a very entertaining
woman. She wasn’t eloquent, but she talked a lot
in her unrefined language. We found her interesting,
so we joked around and drank with her. Then an idea to write a script
based on her came up while I was drinking
with Keiji Hasebe. So we decided to find out
about her in depth. We wanted to learn
about her background, what kind of father she’d had. Then, if possible, we’d write
a script based on her story. I contacted Shima
and asked her to meet me at the Meiji Temple gardens
because I had no money. I didn’t have a proper office
to meet her. We were to meet
in front of the picture gallery. There I took out my notebook and listened to her story. She had once worked in a mill called the Kureha mill
in Toyama. And she had very strong feelings
about her father. She wasn’t aware of it,
but she obviously had these buried feelings toward him
on a subconscious level. I was happy
when I discovered that. So I listened to her for days and took notes that eventually
filled three notebooks. Based on those notes,
Hasebe and I wrote a script. In telling
this woman’s life story, you begin with her father. In the ordinary way
of telling a story, her feelings toward her father would most likely get omitted. But your approach
was interesting. Yes. The model for the protagonist was
unusually attached to her father. But it wasn’t as though
she was subconsciously in love with her father. It didn’t sound like that,
from the way she told it. It sounded less tender. But we felt that we’d dug up
her buried feelings, so we were very happy. But in depicting her,we debated whether to go that far
or not, and we decided we would.
Hasebe was still young then,and we both threw ourselves into it
with great energy.
That is, writing the script.But once the script was finished,
it wasn’t as interesting as the notes I’d taken. We’d put together the script by rearranging
the bleak narrative in the notes. In fact, we’d worked hard
to make it coherent, debating over how to make
sequences interesting. But the resulting script
was well-written and nothing more. Our critical opinion
was that it wasn’t very interesting. Now that you mention it, there are many passages that don’t really seem
to hang together well. But that makes the film fascinating.
– Precisely. I had similar experiences
writing scripts later. I’m a fanatical organizer
and researcher, and it bothers me when things
don’t hang together well. But well-constructed things
aren’t necessarily good either. There’s something fascinating
about the murkiness of things. The audience may find
themselves connecting to that. When everything is organized,
you can lose that connection. I realized that that sort of response occurs
when things feel unsettled. Also, you might say
this film is rather blunt. Before I saw this film, I believed a well-constructed film meant
it was meticulously calculated, with various subplots
woven together, all of them relating closely
to one another. But that sort of story is fictional,
when you think about it. Real life is more – Yes, it’s made up
of fragments of experience. It’s the subconscious – As long as everything was
connected to her subconscious, then it would be all right,
I thought. So I intentionally made
the story fragmented. Also, rather than trying to make
the story itself linger and resonate in the minds of the audience, I wanted to sort of laugh off
what had transpired. That’s why I inserted
short poems about her life. There was something else
very radical about this film. Was it all shot on location?
– Yes. Every single scene
was shot on location? That’s right. I had to deal with a lot of problems,
but I chose to do it that way. It’s very convenient
to use sets. Once a script is written,
the production designer comes in, and you discuss
set design in detail. Like whether a post
should be four inches or five, or whether something
should be one foot higher. You discuss these details. Like building a hearth or not. You pour out
all these details in your head, and the designer
makes drawings. So when you film,
you can remove this side of a set, or remove this part
and shoot from that side. But that’s not possible
in a real room. So I sort of felt that sets were too convenient. I rather audaciously handicapped myself
as if losing an arm, so to speak, and I decided not to use sets. So then I had to film
everything on location, and that entailed having to deal
with all kinds of difficulties. It was a struggle for my crew.A scene in a small apartment
would be shot in an actual apartment.
When a bead curtain
hung in a doorway,
then we’d shoot through it.I deliberately courted
difficulties in shooting. That way, you had to devise
a way around them. For instance, I’d picture
a framing in my mind – like she comes into the room,
moves over here and then here. But it wouldn’t go that way. Even if her movement
was written in the script, there was no room to film long shots,
so we’d end up with close-ups. All the nuanced acting below the chest
couldn’t be seen onscreen. I thought it was worth
making that sacrifice, though I felt
I was taking a huge risk. But by handicapping
yourself like that, it forces you to tap
into your resources.Beginning with Insect Woman,we see acting
in the foreground and something like the scenery
of reality in the background. That is, something taking place
in the actual world. Seeing that onscreen made a very dynamic impression. Well… that happened
as a result of not using sets, but also because
I intentionally incorporated it. I think it adds
something extra to the film. It often just happens
in my films unintentionally. For example, when both
the interior and the exterior are framed together in a shot, it’s difficult to light that,
isn’t it? Yes. And in an actual house where all the rooms
are cramped, you can’t set up lights
anywhere you like. You’re limited
in how you can light it. Also, lens work gets restricted. As a result,
you end up with long takes. Once the camera is set up,
then we let the acting take over. So directing at that point is to make the subject work
for you on the spot. That isn’t a bad way to work. Once you gear up to shoot a sequence
in one long take, then the actors really
turn up their game. Some good stuff comes out of it. Speaking of long takes, Kenji Mizoguchi’s use of them
is well-known and legendary. His were made possible by creating well-constructed sets
that allowed the camera to move freely. But doing long takes on location without using sets
is very interesting. Yes… because it involves sound
as well as picture. If a motorcycle passes by outside,
then that ruins a take. Or you might leave it in,
even if it overpowers a spoken line. I’d decide that on the spot. But sometimes
unwanted noise ruins a take. But doesn’t it – In regard to sound, filming everything on location
must provide a certain effect. It does. Various unnecessary
sounds get recorded. For example, if it starts
raining while shooting, we’d just have to incorporate
that into the scene. There are endless opportunities
for those chance occurrences. It’s something you don’t
encounter on a set. You can create a perfect environment
to really suit your purpose, but it isn’t necessarily
interesting. For example, Shima hid
in an apartment in Shinjuku because she was pursued
by the police. She also moved
to a condo in Ikebukuro. To depict that, you’d have to film
in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. Then you’d have to show scenes that would show
that it was Shinjuku or whatever. I often hear that there’s no point
in filming on location otherwise. I didn’t do that at all. The “where” didn’t matter. I’d deliberately make
the location unclear, showing just a wall
when a window is opened. That made things
more interesting. Filming on location brings with it
various restrictions and charms. One of the characteristics
of your films is the depiction of women with a very strong will to live. That kind of woman appears
repeatedly in your films. But it’s in this film that this really takes shape
clearly, I think. You’re right. This is one of Sachiko Hidari’s
most representative films. Did you cast her as the lead
for some particular reason?I’d seen her in The Maid’s Kid,
directed by Tomotaka Tasaka.
I was really impressed. Hidari plays this maid
who runs really fast, a short-distance runner, and I really liked her work. I have a weakness
for physical actions like running, falling,
or carrying heavy things. I don’t much care when films get too psychological. They should focus more
on physical aspects. I wanted to explore,
for example, how feeling hot or cold
could really influence people to act. So seeing someone running
really hard was pleasing to me. So I was impressed with her for that,
and her acting was great. And I’d wanted to use her
in a film for a long time. But then… the top brass at Nikkatsu somehow
fell in love with Kyoko Kishida. They wanted me
to cast her as Tome. I didn’t want to, but I had her come
for a screen test. I gave her some pages
from the script, but she simply
wasn’t right for the role. The man with the real power at Nikkatsu
back then was named Emori, so I went to pay him
an early-morning visit in Kansai. For hours
on the train to Kansai, I wrote notes
about how to persuade him. And then I deliberately talked to him
in a roundabout way. For 30 minutes I went on and on to him
about the film’s female lead. Finally, he asked,
“Just why have you come here?” I still wouldn’t tell him.
I kept him in suspense. When I finally said I wanted Hidari,
he approved at once. I believe Hidari graduated
from a gymnastics school, so she had great
physical abilities. At the time
she was with Susumi Hani. She was pregnant with Hani’s child,
and that posed a bit of problem. Kazuo Kitamura had been
a Shingeki actor previously. He was more or less seen
as an intellectual actor. But you cast him
against type as Chuji. This sort of role is actually closer
to the real Kitamura. The intellectual air is
a façade he shows to the world. He’s far more interesting
in this type of role. He often tells an exaggerated story
about how he suffered and nearly died when he was thrown
into this inescapable pit of a film. But he has
great physical strength. He actually likes
doing physical acting. Many actors with great presence
appear in this film. For example,
Seizaburo Kawazu. He’s not in that many scenes,
but he gives a wonderful performance. Yes, he was pretty conflicted. We shot his scenes on location in the apartment of
the production manager’s girlfriend. Kawazu and Jitsuko Yoshimura
played their love scene there. Kawazu has coarse hair
on the back of his hands, and I asked him
to rub that hair against Yoshimura’s back. He really hated the idea. He said, “I’d rather not,”
but he went along. I persuaded him to do it because the shot requires the camera
to pan along with his hand. Jitsuko Yoshimurawas also in
Pigs and Battleships.
She’s typical of actresses
in your films. That’s true. She’s ready
to take on anything. She’s doesn’t give up easily,
even if she gets knocked about. She’s sturdy and energetic. But she had a bad habit of
closing her eyes when she spoke.It wasn’t easy to break her of it
on Pigs and Battleships.
Thank you for sharing
these interesting stories today. Throughout the month of May,
the Space Theater is presenting a special program featuring films
by director Shohei Imamura. After each screening, Mr. Imamura
will be with us to discuss his film. I hope you’ll join us.

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