Shōhei Imamura

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Shōhei Imamura
今村 昌平
Born(1926-09-15)15 September 1926
Died30 May 2006(2006-05-30) (aged 79)
Alma materWaseda University
Occupation(s)Film director, screenwriter, producer
Years active1951–2002
MovementJapanese New Wave
AwardsPalme d'Or (1983, 1997)

Shōhei Imamura (今村 昌平, Imamura Shōhei, 15 September 1926 – 30 May 2006) was a Japanese film director. His main interest as a filmmaker lay in the depiction of the lower strata of Japanese society.[1][2] A key figure in the Japanese New Wave, who continued working into the 21st century, Imamura is the only director from Japan to win two Palme d'Or awards.


Early life[edit]

Imamura was born to an upper-middle-class doctor's family in Tokyo in 1926. For a short time following the end of the war, Imamura participated in the black market selling cigarettes and liquor. He studied Western history at Waseda University, but spent more time participating in theatrical and political activities.[1] He cited a viewing of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon in 1950 as an early inspiration, and said he saw it as an indication of the new freedom of expression possible in Japan in the post-war era.[3]

Upon graduation from Waseda in 1951, Imamura began his film career working as an assistant to Yasujirō Ozu at Shochiku Studios on films like Early Summer and Tokyo Story.[1] Imamura was uncomfortable with the image of Japanese society portrayed in Ozu's films,[3] as well as with his rigid directing of actors,[1] although he later admitted that he profited from his apprenticeship for Ozu in terms of gaining technical knowledge.[4] While Imamura's films were to have a quite different style from Ozu's, Imamura, like Ozu, was to focus on what he saw as particularly Japanese elements of society in his films. "I've always wanted to ask questions about the Japanese, because it's the only people I'm qualified to describe," he said. He expressed surprise that his films were appreciated overseas, even doubting that they could be understood.[3]

Studio director[edit]

Imamura left Shochiku in 1954 to join the Nikkatsu studios, where he worked as an assistant director to Yūzō Kawashima. According to Donald Richie, Imamura shared with Kawashima an interest in depicting the "real" Japan with its "uncivilized", amoral protagonists, in opposition to the "official" version as depicted in the films of Ozu, Mizoguchi Kenji, and late career Kurosawa.[5] He also co-wrote the screenplay to Kawashima's Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, and much later edited a book about Kawashima, entitled Sayonara dake ga jinsei da.[6]

In 1958, Imamura made his directorial debut at Nikkatsu, Stolen Desire, about a travelling theater troupe which combines kabuki with striptease, a film which, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, "characteristically finds some vitality in vulgarity".[7] He continued to direct films the studio had assigned him to, including Nishi Ginza Station, a comedy based on a Frankie Nagai pop song, and the black comedy Endless Desire.[8][9] My Second Brother, which portrayed a community of zainichi in a poor mining town, was described by Alexander Jacoby as an "uncharacteristically tender film".[2]

His 1961 satire Pigs and Battleships, of which Imamura later said that it was the kind of film he always had wanted to make,[4] depicted black market trades between the U.S. military and the local underworld at Yokosuka. Due to the film's controversial nature[10] and Imamura's overrunning production time and costs,[11] Nikkatsu did not allow Imamura to direct another project for two years, forcing him to concentrate on screenwriting.[11] He followed this hiatus with the 1963 The Insect Woman, which was shown in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the 1964 Unholy Desire. All three films presented female protagonists who were survivors, persevering despite misfortunes. Imamura disliked the self-sacrificing women portrayed in films like Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu and Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds, arguing that "they don't really exist...My heroines are true to life".[5]

Independent filmmaker[edit]

In 1965, Imamura established his own production company, Imamura Productions. His first independent feature was a free adaptation of a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, The Pornographers (1966), which is nowadays regarded as one of his best-known films in the West.[12][13] In 1967, he followed with the pseudo-documentary A Man Vanishes,[2] which, while following a woman searching for her missing fiancé, increasingly blurred the line between non-fiction and fiction. His 1968 film Profound Desires of the Gods investigated the clash between modern and traditional societies on a southern Japanese island. One of Imamura's more ambitious and costly projects, this film's poor box-office performance led to a retreat back into smaller productions, causing him to direct a series of documentaries over the next decade, often for Japanese television.[14]

History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess and Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute were two of these projects, both focusing on one of his favorite themes: Strong women who survive on the periphery of Japanese society. Two others followed Japanese ex-soldiers in Malaysia and Thailand reluctant to returning home, and speaking openly about their past war crimes on camera.[14]

Imamura returned to fiction with the 1979 Vengeance Is Mine, based on the true story of serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. Two large-scale remakes followed, Eijanaika (1981), a re-imagining of Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, and The Ballad of Narayama (1983), a re-telling of Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 The Ballad of Narayama. For the latter, Imamura received his first Palme d'Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.

Black Rain (1989) portrayed the effect of the bombing of Hiroshima on a family years after the incident. Film scholar Alexander Jacoby discovered an uncommon, "almost Ozu-like quietism" in this film.[2] The Eel (1997) again secured Imamura a Palme d'Or, this time shared with Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry.

Starting with The Eel, Imamura's eldest son Daisuke Tengan worked on the screenplays of his films, including Imamura's contribution to the anthology film 11'09"01 September 11 (2002), his last directorial effort. In 2002, Imamura played the role of a historian in the South Korean film 2009: Lost Memories.[15]

Imamura died on 30 May 2006, aged 79.


Seeing himself as a cultural anthropologist, Imamura stated, "I like to make messy films",[16] and "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure... I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals. What is a human being? I look for the answer by continuing to make films".[17]


Imamura founded the Japan Institute of the Moving Image (日本映画大学) as the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film (Yokohama Hōsō Eiga Senmon Gakkō) in 1975.[18] While a student at this school, director Takashi Miike was given his first film credit as assistant director on Imamura's 1987 film Zegen.[19]

Filmography (selected)[edit]

All films are as director except where otherwise noted.

Year Title Director Writer Producer Notes
1956 The Balloon No Yes No Also second assistant director
1957 Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate No Yes No Also assistant director
1958 Stolen Desire Yes No No
Nishi Ginza Station Yes Yes No
Endless Desire Yes Yes No
1959 My Second Brother Yes Yes No
1961 Pigs and Battleships Yes No No
1962 Foundry Town No Yes No
1963 Samurai no ko No Yes No
Keirin shônin gyôjyôki No Yes No
The Insect Woman Yes Yes No
1964 Unholy Desire Yes Yes No
1966 The Pornographers Yes Yes Yes
1967 A Man Vanishes Yes No Yes
1968 Neon taheiki No Yes No
Higashi Shinakai No Yes Yes
Profound Desires of the Gods Yes Yes No
East China Sea No Yes No
1970 History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess Yes Yes No Television Documentary
1971 In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia Yes No No Television Documentary
In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand Yes No Yes Television Documentary
1972 The Pirates of Bubuan Yes Yes No Television Documentary
1973 Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home Yes No No Television Documentary
1975 Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute Yes No No Television Documentary
1976 The Youth Killer No No Yes
1979 Vengeance Is Mine Yes No No Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year
Japan Academy Film Prize for Director of the Year
1981 Eijanaika Yes Yes Yes
1983 The Ballad of Narayama Yes Yes No Palme d'Or
Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year
1986 Have You Seen the Barefoot God? No No Yes
1987 The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On No No Associate Documentary
Zegen Yes Yes No
1989 Black Rain Yes Yes Executive Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year
Japan Academy Film Prize for Director of the Year
Technical Grand Prize of the Cannes Film Festival
1997 The Eel Yes Yes No Palme d'Or
Japan Academy Film Prize for Director of the Year
1998 Dr. Akagi Yes Yes No
2001 Warm Water Under a Red Bridge Yes Yes No
2002 11'09"01 September 11 Yes Yes No Anthology film episode "Japan"


  1. ^ a b c d Kim, Nelson (July 2013). "Shohei Imamura". Senses of Cinema (27): 3–10. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d Jacoby, Alexander (2008). Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press. pp. 65–68. ISBN 978-1-933330-53-2.
  3. ^ a b c Nigel Kendall (14 March 2002). "All you need is sex. Japanese director Shohei Imamura tells Nigel Kendall the secret of life". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 August 2021.
  4. ^ a b Tessier, Max (1999). "Shohei Imamura interview". In Quandt, James (ed.). Shohei Imamura. Toronto International Film Festival Group. p. 58.
  5. ^ a b Richie, Donald (2005). A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Revised ed.). Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International. pp. 183–191. ISBN 978-4-7700-2995-9.
  6. ^ Imamura, Shōhei (1991). Sayonara dake ga jinsei da: eiga kantoku Kawashima Yūzō no shōgai. Tokyo: Nōberu Shobō. OCLC 37241487.
  7. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (3 January 2008). "Stolen Desire". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  8. ^ Kehr, Dave (1999). "The Last Rising Sun". In Quandt, James (ed.). Shohei Imamura. Toronto International Film Festival Group. pp. 71–73.
  9. ^ "Lights of Night, My Second Brother". Harvard Film Archive. 9 December 2007.
  10. ^ Berra, John (5 July 2011). "Pigs and Battleships". Electric Sheep. Retrieved 15 July 2015.
  11. ^ a b Conversations between Shohei Imamura and critic Tadao Sato about The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder, in: Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (DVD). The Criterion Collection. 2009.
  12. ^ Sklar, Robert (2002). Film: An International History of the Medium (2nd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall. p. 365. ISBN 978-0-130340498.
  13. ^ Keirstead, Thomas; Lynch, Deidre (1995). "Eijanaika: Japanese Modernization and the Carnival of Time". In Rosenstone, Robert A. (ed.). Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 226.
  14. ^ a b "今村昌平TVドキュメンタリー傑作集 (Shohei Imamura TV documentary masterpiece collection)". Kawasaki Art Center (in Japanese). Retrieved 30 July 2021.
  15. ^ "今村昌平 (Imamura Shōhei)" (in Japanese). Japanese Movie Database. Retrieved 3 July 2008.
  16. ^ Botti, Salvatore (29 October 1999). "Pigs, Pimps, and Pornographers. Austin Film Society Free Cinema Series: Shohei Imamura". Archived from the original on 10 May 2006. Retrieved 1 June 2006.
  17. ^ "Modern Japan - Famous Japanese - Imamura Shohei". 16 November 2006. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
  18. ^ 歴史と沿革 [History and Development] (in Japanese). Japan Academy of the Moving Image. Archived from the original on 28 December 2012. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
  19. ^ "Catalogue | The Masters of Cinema Series". Retrieved 31 December 2012.

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