Shohei Imamura’s stark black-and-white Nippon konchuki (Entomological Chronicles of Japan) begins with a beetle crossing blank terrain; the overhead camera seems to show unimpeded travel: a God’s-eye whitewash of reality. The camera shifts lower so as to be looking up at the beetle, which, upon closer inspection, is struggling horribly up a hill, each step a hardship. This metaphor for human life will be fleshed out by the saga of the film’s protagonist, Tomé (Sachiko Hidari, superb, best actress, Berlin), which begins with her rural birth in 1918, lurches forward to 1924, 1942, and so on, depicting her hard life of constant sexual exploitation and the need to eke out a living, which takes her to Tokyo and to work as a prostitute and her ascendancy to the role of brothel madam. It was a female life like any other, only a bit more accomplished because of Tomé’s pluck and skill; but its upward arc misleads, since Tomé’s “success” is encased in a life-story of restricted possibilities proceeding from victimization, including rape and incest. The time-lurches formally convey a discontinuous life out of the hands of the one living it, recall the beetle’s efforts to make any sort of progress, and link Tomé’s fate to her country’s fate, including after World War II. This is an ambitious, somewhat superficial film.
But a fascinating one!—and one graced with some remarkable filmmaking. In the 1918 segment, for example, several compositions include deep contrasts of light and darkness in enclosed spaces, with the darkness sometimes enrobing human forms, and with the human forms themselves at other times the dark element—brought to life, a kind of photographic negative. In both cases, the idea of instinctual blind lives once again links these to the beetle’s broken existence.
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