In a small detail from one of Shohei Imamura's later films, a frustrated, restless woman punches through a paper screen room divider. It's a perfect Imamura metaphor, suggesting a lot about breaking down barriers in a society known for its tasteful restraint and formality.
Imamura, who died last year at the age of 79, confessed that he liked dealing with the "lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure."
There are few tea ceremonies in an Imamura movie; sake's the drink of choice, and lots of it. A woman demurely lowers her eyes only if she sees something or someone down there that'll help pay the rent.
If Yasujiro Ozu (with whom Imamura apprenticed) is Japan's superego, all control and contained politeness, then Imamura is its unruly id. It's no coincidence that Cinematheque's major retrospective of the latter's work, on till March 14, is called Profound Desire.
There's a frank, non-judgmental and, yes, perhaps profound feel to Imamura's onscreen couplings, which are animalistic, sometimes incestuous, often fetishistic and frequently part of a financial transaction.
Yet Imamura's prostitutes and there are many of them aren't figures to be pitied. Like Tome, the protagonist of The Insect Woman (January 27, 6:30 pm), an ignorant mountain woman who works her way up to become the head of a Tokyo call-girl operation, his women know the score. Sex is a commodity they use to get what they want while they can. Morality isn't a factor at all; survival is.
Imamura, who came from a middle-class background, doesn't judge his characters, and neither do they judge themselves. In Vengeance Is Mine (February 11, 1 pm), when a widow who rents out her rooms to working girls discovers the man she's seeing is a wanted serial killer, neither she nor her tough ex-con mother turns him in. Sure, his behaviour might be irrational, but so is human nature.
Look for an absolutely chilling scene in which the man (Ken Ogata in one of several classic Imamura performances) and the mother discuss murder. This is life stripped of its polite facade, reduced to a Darwinian struggle.
Imamura's films have often been called messy, and they are, but in the same way that life is messy. They sprawl, changing moods and tones, horrific one moment, hilarious the next.
In the darkly comic masterpiece The Pornographers (Saturday, January 20, 8:30 pm), Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa), the maker of quickie 8mm erotic films, deals with his impotent customers, the yakuza and his own adoptive family, which includes a carp that may or may not be the jealous reincarnation of his landlady's (Sumiko Sakamoto) husband.
The film is structurally sophisticated; Imamura juxtaposes the main story against outrageous porn sequences as well as flashbacks to the pornographer's childhood, when he may have been abused by a female relation.
Imamura's camera peeks through screens, windows and half-opened doors, creating a metaphor for the act of watching film, too. We're all voyeurs.
Most of Imamura's films feature strong women who refuse to be victims. One of the most anarchic images in all his works comes in the historical epic Eijanaika (February 10, 3:45 pm), when a group of brightly dressed women aim their bare bums at a firing squad and then proceed to urinate. Protest by pussy.
Ordinary people, especially the women, endure. There's a touching, amusing symmetry to the narrative of The Insect Woman, in which the humble farm girl who's spent her adult life in Tokyo finds herself back in the boondocks trampling through mud.
Imamura's men aren't so fascinating, and they're often played by nondescript actors. One exception is the protagonist of The Eel (February 20, 6:30 pm), Imamura's second Palme d'Or winner (the first, The Ballad Of Narayama , screens Friday, January 19, 6:30 pm).
Takuro, played by Koji Yakusho the year after he made Shall We Dance?, is a contained, strong but silent barber who's spent eight years in prison for brutally killing his wife, whom he caught with another man.
When he relocates to a small town and meets a suicidal woman (Misa Shimizu) who looks remarkably like his dead wife, he stoically tries to avoid getting emotionally attached until it's too late.
Yakusho and Shimizu share great chemistry and also acted together in Imamura's final feature, Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (March 14, 8:15 pm), in which Shimizu plays a woman who unleashes a torrent of water whenever she reaches orgasm.
In The Eel, the pair create something that's rare in Imamura: a couple who don't get down and dirty, who talk around the demons that haunt them.
Yakusho, one of the most restrained actors around, is terrific as the suffering barber. We keep waiting for him to blow up and lose it.
He doesn't quite do that, but along with Shimizu, he does create an ending that's as close to touching as Imamura gets.
After decades of punching through the paper screen of Japanese society, maybe old age softened the director up near the end.