Profound Desires of the Gods
- Original title
- Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 173 minutes
- 10 August 2010
by Jasper Sharp
I shall nail my colours to the mast and state straight away that no release in recent years has got me quite so fired up as the new Eureka Blu-ray edition of Profound Desires of the Gods, Shohei Imamura's 1968 epic inquiry into the fundamentals of 'Japaneseness'. If I have to come out and say it, Imamura is the Japanese director I admire the most. Yasuzo Masumura might come a close second, with Giants and Toys probably my favourite Japanese film of all time, but his output was never as consistent, nor his vision so singular and expansive as the auteur behind such diverse yet thematically linked works as Pigs and Battleships (Buta to Gunkan, 1961), The Pornographers (Erotogoshi-tachi yori: Jinruigaku Nyumon, 1866), and The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama Bushiko, 1983). It has to be said, however, that Imamura fans have been pretty poorly served in the UK. Aside from his final (and far from finest) work, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Akai Hashi no shita no Nurui Mizu, 2002), up until now only The Eel (Unagi, 1997) and Vengeance is Mine (Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari, 1979) have been available on DVD, the latter also courtesy of the Masters of Cinema line of Britain's most ambitious label, Eureka (and soon up for reissue on Blu-ray).
Profound Desires of the Gods might be considered the Holy Grail within Imamura's filmography. Until this release, it was unavailable anywhere in the world in an English-subtitled version. Eureka's decision to release it solely on Blu-ray might be something of a frustration to those that haven't yet upgraded to the new format, but alongside Masters of Cinema's other Blu-ray exclusive release earlier this year of F.W. Murnau's City Girl (1930), it seems the time has finally come for UK cinephiles to embrace the format wholeheartedly. People have gone to greater lengths to see the film, after all - so desperate was I to see it that I programmed it as part of the Imamura retro I was involved in at Bristol's Arnolfini last year. The big screen is of course the best place to see the film, but the Blu-ray medium more than adequately captures the full vibrancy of the quite startling colour Scope photography.
How to describe this film then? Picture, perhaps, an Okinawan-set The Wicker Man as re-imagined by Herzog and Jodorowsky, portraying the superstitious denizens of a remote island and their reactions to the 'civilising' mission of capitalist interests from the mainland. Comparisons with Yasujiro Ozu, the director under whom Imamura served as assistant after first entering the film industry, might seem misplaced, especially given the rather tepid opinions on the works of the master of Japanese cinema's Golden Age expressed by Imamura in his early career: the Garden of Eden island paradise setting of Profound Desires of the Gods's Kurage-jima seems a million miles from the hermetically-enclosed middle-class arenas of Ozu's home dramas, and the director's Rabelaisian portrayals of his peasant-class characters are devoid of the bourgeois etiquette, poise, and sophistication of those at the heart of such films as Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953).
And yet the family is but one of many entry points into discussions of this rich and rewarding work, providing a microcosm with which to dig beneath the surface of post-Meiji Restoration civilisation to unearth more fundamental truths about Japanese behaviour and social codes and the traditions upon which they are founded. The tropical setting of Kurage might be fictional (the film was actually shot in Ishigaki, one of the furthermost islands in the Okinawan peninsula), but one can still imagine such places existing during the 1960s, far from the nation's commercial epicentre, left all but abandoned by the modernisation process. (Some descriptions of the film have made use of words like "primitive" or "stone-age" to characterise this isolated populace, which seems stretching the point a little; in fact, one of the characters in the film claims they're about fifty years behind the mainland.)
The main proponents of the story are the various members of the Futori family, ostracised and labelled as 'beasts' by their fellow island inhabitants due to the incestuous antics of their patriarch, Yamamori (the casting of Kanjuro Arashi is particularly intriguing here; a major star from the heyday of silent jidai-geki, his place in film history is ensured through Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War / Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso, released in 1957, in which he played the first fictional portrayal of a Japanese emperor). The imbecilic Toriko (Okiyama) is both his daughter and his granddaughter, a primal expression of female potency who serves as a willing outlet for the islanders' sexual urges, and is believed to possess the visionary powers of a noro (an Okinawan shaman). His son Nekichi (Mikuni) has similarly erred, and his punishment for sinning against both society (dabbling with other men's wives) and nature (disrupting the ecological equilibrium by fishing with dynamite) sees him shackled in a flooded pit and charged with the Sisyphean task of dislodging a giant boulder impeding the flow of fresh water to the rice paddies. Nekichi's inappropriate designs on his sister, Uma (Matsui), have seen her sequestered from her family by the island headman Ryugen (Kato). She now serves the dual roles of the community leader's mistress and the head priestess of the main shrine, kept hidden from outsiders as it contains the only fresh water source on the island.
Parallels are spelt out between the incest of the Futori family, who boast the oldest lineage on Kurage, and the island's own creation myth through the union of sibling gods, recounted in song by another of Kurage's inhabitants, an itinerant minstrel, as much for the viewer's benefit as for that of his audience of young children whom he serenades beneath a tree. This isn't just an invention of the film, bearing a close analogy to the founding myth of the nation state of Japan as a whole as recorded in the nation's oldest surviving text, the Kojiki / Record of Ancient Matters, compiled in the early eighth century. As Imamura states in an interview in the disk's accompanying booklet, "The point is that incest is bad - in fact, immoral - because it's something that only the gods are supposed to do." The drought afflicting the island is believed by its god-fearing inhabitants to be the result of this taboo having been violated by the male members of the Futori family, although in actuality, it is more likely to have been caused by the efforts of Ryugen to modernise the local economy, bringing in capital from the mainland by replacing rice paddies with crops of sugar cane. With the sugar crops dwindling due to a lack of fresh water, an engineer, Kariya (Kitamura), is dispatched from Higashi Sugar's headquarters in the capital to oversee the digging of a new well. Ryugen solicits Yamamori's grandson, the guileless Kametaro (Kawarazaki), to help Kariya in his search for a fresh water supply, but it is only a matter of time before the urban interloper finds himself seduced into this prelapsarian paradise by the female agents of the Futori family.
By all accounts, Imamura found himself similarly seduced during the production process, embracing island life with a verve that saw the original shooting schedule expand from six to eighteen months, and the budget snowball accordingly (I'm sure there's a fascinating behind-the-scenes story to be told here, like the production problems that befell the similarly proto-mythic folie de grandeur of Murnau and Flaherty's Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, released in 1931). The film's resulting commercial flop saw Imamura retreat from fiction filmmaking into television documentary for almost ten years, while the studio that financed it, Nikkatsu, migrated away from such ambitious projects to the low-cost/high-impact world of sex film production with the launch of its Roman Porno line in 1971.
The thin line that exists between man and beast remained a salient point of Imamura's worldview throughout his career, notably in The Insect Woman (Nippon Konchuki, 1963), his first collaboration with the surrealist scriptwriter Keiji Hasebe (as well as Profound Desires, Hasebe also worked with Imamura on 1964's Intentions of Murder / Akai Satsui), but seldom has man's precarious position in the natural order of things been so scintillating evoked as here. Like The Ballad of Narayama, the film is peppered with shots of the islanders' animal co-inhabitants, shot with an anthropomorphising, absurdist eye that recalls the unorthodox, and frankly odd, nature documentaries of Jean Painlevé, such as The Sea Horse (1934), Sea Ballerinas (1960), or The Love Life of an Octopus (1967): in the opening shots, a banded sea snake wends its way through the shallows, a mollusc squirms sensuously as the warm water laps around it, and a monstrous crocodile fish fixes the viewer with its cold, reptilian stare. The soundtrack too is permeated by the constant throb of cicadas and the chattering of the island's bird life. Unlike the locals, the engineer Kariya initially struggles to adjust to this fecund environment, in a series of semi-comic scenes in which he is bothered by ants, or awakened in the dead of night by a gecko falling into his snoring mouth (is it just me, or does Kariya bear more than a passing resemblance to Imamura's fellow giant of the 60s new wave, and arch-rationalist, Nagisa Oshima? Remembering Imamura's comment, "I am a farmer. Oshima is a samurai"...) Kariya slowly comes to adapt to his new life, but the process by which he does so is no less fraught than that of the island's later Coca-colonisation.
It is this organic aspect to Imamura's work that most appeals to me. Rather than constantly editorialising through plot and camera, he presents the world as is, in all its messy splendour, irrational yet spontaneous and teeming with vitality. Profound Desires of the Gods represents perhaps the apogee of his vision, and one of the most fascinating works of its era from anywhere in the world. This Masters of Cinema Blu-ray provides a perfect introduction to this long-neglected work, with the liner notes essay and video introduction by Tony Rayns providing a perfect background to the means and methods behind the director and his apparent onscreen madness. In a nutshell, this is a must-have package.