Imamura deserves much more space than I can give him here, and one should start at this overview, with some great quotes:
I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.
If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I would have called him my favorite living director. Now he’s probably my favorite dead director. There are very few other directors who deal with the world in such an all-encompassing totality, without the desire to tie it down into a preconceived structure. As I’ve said elsewhere, Imamura convinces you that the world continues infinitely beyond the frame, and that he could show you any part of it if he so desired. He was also one of the very few Japanese directors I know of to transcend the dragon-lady/martyr dichotomy of women that overwhelmingly prevails in Japanese film from Mizoguchi to Suzuki to Miike. (“Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu don’t really exist.”) There are no obvious comparisons, but thinking of him as a more proletarian Renoir or a more consistent Altman may not be so far off the mark. Emir Kusturica also owes him quite a debt.
My own thoughts on some of his films follow; I have my favorites, but I honestly recommend you see them all. There are still films of his that I haven’t seen: The Profound Desire of the Gods, A Man Vanishes, A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Not to be melodramatic, but I feel that they’re necessary for me to watch.
Pigs and Battleships (1961). I already wrote about this one, but it’s portrait of decadent post-war Japan is unlike anything else I’ve seen. While others were making self-flagellating exercises in remorse (see Kobayashi’s The Human Condition), Imamura ignored virtue and duty to show the intersecting forces of opportunism and greed.
The Insect Woman (1963). The most acute example of his treatment of women in traditional Japan, showing one woman’s progression from exploiter to exploited as a factor of environmental and survival instincts, not as the product of some abstract human nature. Crushes Mizoguchi and Ozu. (There’ll be plenty of time to like Ozu when I’m an old sentimental geezer.)
The Pornographers (1966). Unbelievably bizarre disquisition on Japanese family life and sexuality. Incest, porn, fish, sex dolls. This one is famous because of its sheer lurid oddity, but I don’t apprehend it as intuitively, and I suspect that it travels with more difficulty than his other films. Still brilliant.
Vengeance is Mine (1979). A comparatively restrained study of a serial murderer, played brilliantly by the underrated Ken Ogata. Imamura resists psychologizing Ogata’s character, preferring to leave him as a overt manifestation of what Japan would rather keep quiet, much like Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities. It plays as a travelogue through various sorts of physical and spiritual despair, all made visceral.
Eijanaika (1981). An awesome achievement and my second favorite. Nineteenth century Japan as seen from the view of the peasants. Neither sentimental nor revisionist, it subtly builds to a futile but profound peasant revolt that is everything you never see in Kurosawa. Words fail me. Again, what is remarkable is the absolute structural conviction and integrity. Imamura never falters.
The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Imamura’s greatest film, and probably my favorite film of all time. It is so close to me that I’ll give up on describing it. Just watch the damn thing, and please, someone issue it on DVD.
Black Rain (1989). Imamura’s treatment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese’s psychological exile of the victims. Less incisive than his prior work, it evinces more overt compassion than he had previously allowed. As such, I think it shows cracks in the perfection of his earlier work, but it’s still fine, fine stuff.
The Eel (1997). Imamura became famous all over again for this one, but I think of it as a minor work, telling a simple tale of a man’s (successful) attempt at redemption. Imamura sacrifices his panoramic talent for more intimate human interest, and while the result is still compelling, it does not stand up to what went before.
Dr. Akagi (1998). It seems deceptively minor at first, but this is a much more substantial film than The Eel. A series of tales focusing around an apolitical doctor in World War II, it displays for the first time what Imamura believes constitutes virtue in the rotten world he’d portrayed for the previous forty years. It is his most hopeful film, but as you’d expect, it’s a guarded hope.
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001). A disappointing final film. Beginning with a fairly ridiculous premise, Imamura here is far sunnier than he has ever been before, but alas, he is out of his element in these realms, and the film doesn’t cohere. Yet I have to wonder if it was Imamura’s final taunt at the recurrent theme of disgust and fear of open, healthy female sexuality in Japanese culture (though the sentiment is hardly unique to Japan).