by Claudia Siefen-Leitich
In his films, people are at the center of events – as one reluctantly and often reads about directors. Except that in his case it is true. Imai Tadashi (1912-1991), the people-watcher. From a naive enthusiasm for suffering, whether this arose from poverty or illness, he developed an intense preoccupation with this unchanging point of view. To expose the misery under many faces closely and clearly, such as war, poverty, diseases, xenophobia, but also the emotional, small and dark spirits such as envy and jealousy and love, all this could be understood as Imai’s message. For the fact that he had such a message, namely a consistently clear political one, is what distinguishes him from stylists such as Gosho, Naruse or Kurosawa. Man, presented as the center of events into which he repeatedly maneuvers himself for the most diverse reasons.
And this is exactly where one can start: Imai is a narrator in pictures who always attaches greater importance to a story, even more than to its later stylistic realization. It is therefore impossible to speak of an individual style. Imai becomes overconfident in image composition or editing at most when it is beneficial to the story or would define his point of view even more precisely. For well-known Japanese production companies such as Toei or Toho, Imai liked to work with cinematographer Nakao Shun’ichiro. It is interesting to compare the function of a director in North American or European cinema with that in Japanese cinema. Whereas the usual designation of a director kantokusha (summarizing for command holder, overview and guidance) makes clear a completely different understanding towards this profession.
A successful Japanese director will never have to be subordinate to his producer and will also find his name on the respective poster above the film title. As I said, this only applies to successful directors. And likewise for a certain period of time in which these directors became famous. Precisely because of the old studio system, which still persists today in the modern film industry, it was common to have a director go through a long training path. Thus, a surprising rise in notoriety overnight was completely out of the question. The development was predictable, and only through their talent unusual directors were able to break out of these orbits. The camera in Imai’s work is excitingly unspectacular. One becomes aware of some camera shots once one has understood their context to the ongoing story. Cool long shots and meticulous camera moves showing the sky and the sea suddenly no longer have anything monumental about them. And after a black-and-white film you think you can name the colors of a certain dress with absolute certainty.
Imai made his first color film with Kome (Rice) in 1957, which is often seen in Europe as a representative of Japanese neo-realism, and which attempts to portray the problems arising from the prevailing family system in Japan. Integrated into a love story, the conflict of status between rice farmers and fishermen is also depicted. Imai impressively describes a case of emancipation: the husband and father are physically and also mentally unstable, no longer able to feed his family. So it is the fisherman’s wife (in a splendid performance by Mochizuki Yuko, a former stage star of light entertainment) who first has to face the ridicule of the rest of the villagers, earn money for a daily living, and also has to deal with their teen daughter. The fisherman’s wife will eventually break down because of a debt that is obviously too high to pay back ever in her life. The aforementioned, somewhat naively romanticized view of Imai on the poverty of the village population, how could one try to explain it?
First of all, it should be noted that Imai himself did not come from a poor background. He attended Tokyo University (studying politics and history), joined the Young Communist League of the time, and after a heated marriage, did his first job at a film studio (J.O. Studios) as a lighting technician. After that, instructed for six months and working as script continuity, he was to deliver his first directorial work: Numazu heigakko (Numazu Military Academy) from 1939, a film teeming with tons of continuity errors and whose overall direction does not add up to a whole. Setting the shooting schedule slowly from one day to the next: a way of working that he was to maintain even as a successful director. By shooting quietly and continuously on the studio set, he was largely spared unforeseen incidents such as the weather or disgruntled actors. So much for Imai’s love of experimentation and adventure.
What particularly puzzles his critics is the seemingly contradictory course between Imai’s political views and the political message of his films. Whereas in his student days he was deeply involved in producing leaflets for the Young Communists, distributing them, and also even organizing the accountancy. As a film director, he was now at least as committed to government propaganda. And in Japan of the time, this meant producing films that did not question or even make fun of the military order, which meant upholding fighting morale, avoiding tendencies towards individualism, constantly reaffirming the philosophy of the Japanese family system. But above all, it meant reinforcing respect for fathers and older brothers. Imai’s films of the time were made to glorify the ultra-right tendencies within the nation, which he still knew how to fight before and after the war.
One is then confronted with his other films, such as Jun’ai monogatari (Story of Pure Love) from 1957. Tide up in a love story, Imai contrasts the relative purity of a young couple with the corruption of society, without idealizing the true nature of the young people for even a moment. The film is pure communist propaganda. In the process, Imai did not shy away from having his favorite author, Mizuki Yöko, alter the novel accordingly. The catastrophic consequences of the atomic bomb are cleverly added, while the novel template the young woman contracting tuberculosis. But Imai’s conventional handling of the framing story beat other films that also dealt with the atomic bomb, e.g. Kurosawa’s Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being), by a mile at the box office.
Imai’s strength, on the other hand, is shown when the story focuses exclusively on the characters drawn. This succeeds particularly impressively two years later in Kiku to Isamu (Kiku and Isamu), and in Nippon no oba-chan (Japanese Grandmothers). The problems dealt with here are of purely human nature: be it the exclusion of mixed-race children or the loneliness of old people. Imai tells their stories without illustrating any political theory.
Kiku and Isamu, children of a black American and a Japanese woman, experience the initially reserved rejection of the other inhabitants towards their ancestry in a small farming village. Abandoned by their parents at an early age, they are brought up by their Japanese grandmother, portrayed by the Japanese face of all Japanese old ladies, actress Kitabayashi Tanie (1911-2010). The simple, warmly coarse woman is well aware of the mounting difficulties the children must face. As the plot unfolds, she decides to give the two children up for adoption in the United States. While it is easy to find a family for the bright and young Isamu, enormous difficulties arise for the older teenage girl Kiku.
After several incidents that create a deep sense of unease through their simplicity and piercing observation, the grandmother decides to take Kiku out of school to free her from the pressure exerted on her every day. Separated from her brother now and being prepared for life by an old woman now: Kiku always finds the greatest strength in herself! At the same time, Imai does not offer a satisfactory solution at all, for Kiku will now devote herself exclusively to rural life, learn everything “worth knowing” from her grandmother and avoid other people as much as possible in order to assert her necessary living space. In sketching out her will to live, however, Imai cannot resist showing Kiku, played by Takahashi Emiko (*1947), as the natural-born entertainer. All singing and dancing, as she “has it in her blood“, she drives a group of travelers away from their tedious rest.
Ridiculed or even attacked at other times because of her skin color and plumpness, she is allowed to entertain the representative bourgeois average with actually talented performances. Her head proudly held high, well aware of her peculiarity, she will remain in the village with no prospect of further schooling, no possible marriage prospects, and the imminent further loss of a loved one before her eyes. Kitabayashi Tanie is met again in Nippon no oba-chan. On a sunny day, during what appears to be a pleasure stroll, she meets a like-minded, good-humored stranger in the 1960s Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa. There is chatting, musing, eating over the course of the day, and strange yet familiar acquaintances are made on the sidelines. Contrasting, of course, between old and young. But little by little, the half-hearted facade crumbles and it turns out that one has escaped from the hated old people’s home and the other from the cramped life between son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
After a failed suicide attempt, both ladies come to the conclusion that a stay in an old people’s home is still more bearable if you know there is someone close to you whom you feel attached to. Touching in its problematic nature, but never disrespectful in its view of the old women, it is the realistic portrayal of old people that delights, miles away from cute dodder or heartwarming kindness towards the people who say a sympathetic word to them. In its editing and camerawork, this film produces a sense of closeness amidst the crowds in Tokyo’s entertainment district, sometimes seeming documentary-like in its capture of the pace of the city and vis-à-vis the simple and incisive experiences of the two women. At the same time, the editing remains calm, relaxed, yet transmits something of the women’s level-headed excitement. In the end, there is not the usual look of consternation on the part of the viewer when it comes to such topics, but rather the daily, painstakingly suppressed certainty that we are inexorably approaching old age.
So what then is the human being? Of course, Imai doesn’t know either. But in his large and dramatic themes, he gives the small gestures and events the opportunity to outline this question more precisely. The answer, as always, can be found by each viewer, or not at all. What is important, I suppose, is to have asked oneself this question once again after watching a film. And who then is Imai? Critics still see it as “chic” to be politically “left-wing”, it is admirable to still belong to neorealism (nakanai), a realism without tears. This popularity still produces a frown, as being popular still means being conformist, understandable and simplified, even uncritical, without corners, edges or sharp sides. The views towards Imai over time should be watched again with interest.
(further reading: Imai Tadashi “Senso senryo jiki no kaiso” (A memoir on the eras of war and American occupation). In: “Senso to Nihon eiga: koza Nihon eiga” (War and Japanese film: Lectures on Japanese film), vol. 4, edited by Imamura Shohei, et al., 198–215. Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten. – Thanks to the Dept. of East Asian Studies, University of Vienna.)