Monday, April 16, 2012

"Despite Your University Education, You're A Decent Man": A Few Thoughts on Shohei Imamura's "Stolen Desire"

I've just finished watching Shohei Imamura's first film, 1958's Stolen Desire (Nusumareta yokujô), and I want to offer a few observations on it.

The movie follows the adventures of an itinerant acting troupe in post-war Japan.  Down on their luck, they leave Osaka for a rural engagement, where they encounter all the earthy exuberance and lustiness of a population not far removed from being "peasants."  The film's emotional heart is focalized around Shinkichi, a young man with a college degree who's presence as director of the troupe is somewhat incongruous (from a socio-economic standpoint), and we can see in embryo the class consciousness that would become so characteristic of Imamura's work.

But I don't want to give a plot summary.  I only wanted to introduce Shinkichi so I could get to the line that is the title of this piece.  Near the end of the movie, the aged leader of the troupe (and apparently being the troupe leader is different from being the director) wants to convey to Shinkichi what an unexplected pleasure it's been to work with him, and so he says, "Despite your university education, you're a decent man." And oh, how I, with my college degree-- which has so far been of little use to me-- oh how I laughed.  The world must be full of bastards with college degrees.  To take a recent example (and one that's already been harped on extensively, so I guess it's not an original example), let's look at the 2008 financial crisis.  The bigwigs at Lehmann Brothers, at Bear Stearns, at Goldman Sachs, all of them had college degrees.  The whole American moneyed elite is full of bastards with college degrees and in 2008 they decided to wreck the global economy.  In light of this, it makes sense that someone would be downright startled to meet a degree-holder who wasn't a bastard.

Mind you, now, there are different types of degrees and they do different types of damage.  I, for instance, have a BA in English literature, and let me assure you, it is hard to wreck the planet with a degree in English literature.  Really, any degree in the humanities in general must have a neutralizing effect; it's like an innoculation, and it renders its bearer incapable of doing any serious damage to society at large.  I'm not saying that history majors or English majors can't be assholes as individuals; I'm just saying it's going to be hard for them to take the skills they learned in college and harness them for evil ends on a large scale.  I doubt Bernie Madoff got himself a degree in film theory (I also doubt that such a degree existed back when he was in college, but my point still stands).

Oh, and back to Imamura, who rebelled so enthusiastically against "traditional" Japanese cinema and Japanese social conventions in general; it's amazing to think that he got his start as an assistant on Yasujiro Ozu movies.  And touches of Ozu can be seen in Stolen Desire.  The score is full of the swelling string sections that one expects from Ozu (and a number of other Japanese filmmakers of his era), strings that wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood melodrama.

And there's one scene near the end of the movie where Shinkichi and his love interest are having a back and forth and the editing is distinctly Ozu-esque.  The camera faces Shinkichi almost head-on, and you feel like you were sitting at a table directly across from him, and then we cut to his love interest, and the camera approaches her from the same angle, and back and forth, just as you'll find throughout Ozu's corpus.  Now this must be a vestigial Ozuism for Imamura, because in the other, later Imamura movies that I've seen (and I need to see more) I haven't noticed this technique.  I will have to keep a lookout for more tell-tale signs of Ozu as I explore the rest of Imamura's work.  Good material for a future blog post.

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