Why not? or What the heck!: this attitude marked a time of unrest in Japan, during the waning days of the Shogunate. Its devil-may-care appearance, though, may have been an attempt by many to claim some measure of control in the face of irresistible historical forces. The underside of Why not?: What can one do? Well, riot—and indeed peasant riots, a pulsating release, ripped the Edo era.
Shohei Imamura’s film, which begins in 1867, messily, exuberantly overflows with rambunctious humanity, including humanity at its basest—implicitly, in contrast to the uptight, drearily focused Japan of Imamura’s own day. However, the comparison is more complex, for Japan’s responsible incarnation provides an antidote to the encroaching nihilism when Japan’s order and stability were politically upheaved as warlords and samurai and their opponents battled, scrambling for whatever power each could grab, and pointing Japan toward an uncertain future. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 found the opponents, the emperor’s supporters, claiming victory.
Although Imamura’s marvelous tapestry weaves in other subplots, the protagonist is Genji (Shigeru Izumiya, endearing), a crippled farmer who has returned to his village after six years’ absence to find his wife has split. Thus begins a series of adventures that sweep him into the “eijanaika” movement, his heart yet aching for his return to the U.S. Genji, reunited with her, tells Ine (excellent: Kaori Momoi—Hirohito’s wife for Sokurov a quarter-century hence): “America is a very big country—and the earth is rich. . . . It is easy to cultivate the land there. You can even own it. The farmers there are different. Japanese farmers are just slaves.” To someone else, he later adds, “In America they freed the slaves.” Reflected in Genji, whose return to it the U.S. has barred, Japan has discovered a world beyond itself.
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