Imamura ‘was treasure of Japanese cinema’

Director Shohei Imamura, who portrayed modern Japan’s downtrodden in raw realism and eroticism and became the first Japanese to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes twice, died of cancer in Tokyo on Tuesday. He was 79.

Often considered the top Japanese director since the late Akira Kurosawa, Imamura was a pioneer of the country’s New Wave movement, moving away from classical themes to focus on prostitutes, ex-convicts and other characters from the underground.

”He died at a hospital where he had been treated for about a month since he fell ill,” said Mitsuo Hirakawa, chief secretary of the Japan Academy of Moving Images, which Imamura founded in 1975.

”Mr Imamura seemed healthy and cheerful when he attended a party with our faculty last March,” he said, adding that he had not known of any plan by the director to shoot a new film.

The cause of death was a metastatic liver tumour resulting from cancer for which he underwent surgery in June last year, Imamura Studio said.

Imamura won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1983 for The Ballad of Narayama, a tale of a man who follows village tradition to let his mother die on a mountain top.

He won the top award again in 1997 for The Eel, about a man who was imprisoned for murdering his wife and meets another woman as he tries to start a new quiet life in a village.

He also directed the 1989 film Black Rain depicting the aftermath of the world’s first atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

”I realised that Imamura’s movies had die-hard fans at Cannes when I was asked many questions about the director,” Japanese actor Koji Yakusho, who starred in The Eel, said about his attendance at the festival this month.

”I feel so sad that we cannot see more Imamura movies that are original and powerful. He was a treasure of Japanese cinema,” added the 50-year-old.

Born in 1926 in Tokyo to a doctor father, Imamura entered a technical school to escape being drafted into the imperial army during its conquest of Asia.

He went to study Western literature at prestigious Waseda University and was profoundly marked by the poverty and chaos in the aftermath of the war, which had left Tokyo lying in ruins.

He had his break into cinema as an assistant to director Yasujiro Ozu in the early 1950s but within a decade moved in another direction, portraying the downtrodden of 20th-century Japan.

Imamura joined contemporaries Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda to lead the country’s ”Nouvelle Vague” in cinema.

He took a new perspective on the country’s then soaring spirits with the 1970 film A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. In his 1975 documentary Karayuki-san, he profiled Japanese women sent as prostitutes to South-East Asia to accompany wartime troops.

In his last feature-length film, Warm Water under a Red Bridge in 2001, he depicted the love and sex of a middle-aged man.

”I have always regretted that I lacked lightness,” Imamura said about the movie. ”I aim to produce movies which we can laugh at and cry at in a big way.”

In 2002, he joined 10 other directors such as Claude Lelouch, Sean Penn and Ken Loach — who took home the latest Palme d’Or this week — to contribute short episodes to the omnibus production September 11 in response to the terror attacks in the United States.

Imamura portrayed a rural man who returns home from an overseas battlefield at the end of World War II, locks himself up in a pen and acts as a snake in protest at mankind over war.

”I am beginning to love short films with low budgets,” he said at that time. ”I want to do a few more.”

Apart from Imamura, three other directors — including Francis Ford Coppola — won the Palme d’Or twice. — AFP

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