TOKYO — Director Shohei Imamura died May 30 in Tokyo of liver cancer. He was 79.
The son of a doctor and a graduate of elite Waseda U., Shohei Imamura joined the Shochiku studio in 1951 as an assistant director. He worked with Yasujiro Ozu on his masterpiece “The Tokyo Story,” but grew dissatisfied with Ozu’s highly controlled style and middle-class subject matter. In 1954 he moved to the Nikkatsu studio and in 1958 made his directorial debut with “Stolen Desire.”
Much like Nikkatsu mentor Yuzo Kawashima, Imamura had a preference for contemporary themes, explored with frankness, humor and a lack of cant. He also had an enduring interest in the inhabitants of cultural backwaters and the lower depths, particularly earthy, strong-willed women who disdained bourgeois morality.
His 1963 breakthrough film, “Insect Woman,” told the story of one such heroine, a prostitute who tenaciously pursues her dream of wealth and power, using deceit and subterfuge without a qualm. Shot in a quasi-documentary style, the pic won numerous prizes and was proclaimed the best Japanese film of the year by the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine’s critics poll.
Imamura launched his own production company in 1965 and continued to make films mixing fictional and documentary techniques. In 1970, after the B.O. failure of “History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess,” he abandoned features for documentaries.
In 1979 he returned to fictional filmmaking with “Vengeance Is Mine,” a close-up examination of a ruthless serial killer who nurses a burning hatred for his meek Christian father. Based on a true story, the film swept domestic awards, including a Kinema Junpo Best One prize.
In 1983 Imamura released “The Ballad of Narayama,” a period film based on a legend about rural villagers who abandon their elderly on a nearby mountain. The pic won the Palme d’Or at Cannes — Imamura’s first.
He scooped Cannes’ top prize again in 1997 for “The Eel,” a drama about an ex-con who killed his wife and is trying to start anew with a woman who attempted suicide.
Imamura’s last full-length feature was the 2001 drama “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.” He also contributed a segment to “Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image — September 11,” an omnibus on the theme of 9/11.
Imamura was founder and longtime head of the Japan Academy of Moving Images, a Yokohama-based film school whose alumni include helmer Takashi Miike.