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The Insect Woman Review

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by Mark Botwright Feb 8, 2012

    Released in 1963 and winning its lead actress Sachiko Hidari the prestigious Silver Bear award for best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Insect Woman would prove to be one of the most acclaimed films of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu or New Wave. Having studied under Ozu, director Shohei Imamura fast developed his own inimitable style, stripping away the delicacy of a poignant probing of Japanese norms and values and centring his gaze instead upon the darker, seedier underbelly that arguably better depicts the true nature of all such societies.

    This shift of attention and earthy approach to storytelling helped him gain a reputation throughout his career as an anthropological film-maker, and The Insect Woman shows this perfectly. The opening shots of a bug (I’m no Bill Oddie so I don't know what kind) crawling across the sand and dirt of the ground, making it to a gradient and slowly ascending, is not just a scene setter for all the grimy hardships that will unfold, but also the zoological metaphor that surrounds the narrative.

    Tomie, the female protagonist, is born into the poverty of a rural farming community, her family struggle to feed themselves and their lives are defined by this. The film is punctuated with important dates in Tomie’s life, and begins as she is born in the year 1918. Her mother En is promiscuous and doesn't know the biological father, her father figure Chuji is a simple worker, somewhat incestuously transfixed to his new daughter. One of the early moments depicted as significant in her life is the first time she catches her mother sleeping with another man. It is instances like this that have helped make Imamura such an intriguing film-maker, because the shots are artistically composed, the framing drawing the viewer's eye, yet there is never the hint that what we are witnessing, and has been carefully orchestrated, is intended to play for a reaction. The story is told, we witness, but almost like wildlife film-makers, the principle is not that of judgement but observation.

    With this watching eye patterns are formed, and moments like her mother's rendezvous with a man imprint something on Tomie, as she will find in later life. The film is as much about the struggles of working class females in 20th century Japan as it is about how the blueprint for behaviours are formed and the painful predictability of it once the blueprint is established. We follow Tomie as she begins working, only to be drawn back to the family to be used as a pawn in the cycle of survival, to be paired off to a local land owner's son. The cabal of women who run the family are already aware of the brutal reality of survival in a rural farming community, the joke of illegitimate children being little more than a mishap on the way to getting the right man to better their chances of living to another generation.

    The birth of her own illegitimate daughter is seen to be selfish by her family, they help her as she is in labour yet their first discussion is whether to get rid of it or not, arguing that it is just another mouth to feed. This could be seen as a chance to break the cycle, but Imamura keeps us with Tomie as she travels away from her family, including her child, in order to better earn a crust. By this time she already has a chain of failed relationships under her belt, and the role of men proves to be that of user. It's a fairly stark portrait of male-female relationships the director paints, but for all its simplicity it is nevertheless highlighting a point about a class system that doesn't bend for those attached to one rising upwards. As men find success, as the factory clerk she sleeps with does, they inevitably discard her.

    The factory setting works as a nice backdrop to some large occurrences and commentary on Japanese history of the period. The clerk reads out the Emperor's speech, calling for resistance to US occupation, yet he doesn't speak the words with any real gusto, letting the machinery override his mumblings, whilst all that can be heard is the gossiping of the female workers. History, and the posturing of the male population in power, will not derail the everyday lives of women. Tomie's misfortune is also aligned to the labour union movement.

    Once in the city, she gets work as a maid, but a mishap, mirroring the theme of imprinted behaviour, soon sends her into another downward spiral. A shocking scene of tragedy befalling a child is never easy to view, but Imamura doesn't dwell on the horror, leaving it more as a pointer as to how history and behaviour will inevitably prove to be patterned and repetitious, like the film itself.

    At a low ebb Tomie is recruited to be a maid at a motel where, by another twist of fate, or perhaps the knowing manipulation of a power figure, she is forcibly recruited as a prostitute. She accepts the money and begins a life of selling her body in order to live in a reasonable manner. Once again, the director makes no judgement, the fact she has got nowhere by giving away her body for free to the wrong men makes little difference when extenuating circumstances are not necessary. This is about survival, and when Tomie finally realises that life for her will be about the fight of the fittest she deposes her madam to assert control over the business, but when her daughter comes to visit the final threads of her newly woven life will be unravelled.

    The Insect Woman is less a moving narrative, more an interesting conversation come to the screen. It raises issues, sidesteps moral assertions and aims squarely at fixing a cold hard stare at the hardships of female working class life and the pitfalls therein. I must admit it's not a film I’d say I actively liked, the crushing inevitability lends an air of monotony that is hard to shake, but it has to be respected. The repetitious nature of the character arcs are entirely orchestrated in the knowledge they may have such an effect on the viewer, but to hammer the point home without creating an unmissable cycle would be to undermine the premise of Tomie's life. She is, in every essence, the insect woman, driven by instinct in a quest for survival.