Reflecting on the extraordinary documentaries by Shohei Imamura that recently played at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I remembered an old Ethiopian proverb: “A cow gave birth to a fire. She wanted to lick it, but it burned her; she wanted to leave it, but she could not because it was her own child.”
These works present Imamura talking to war criminals, former sex slaves, and the dispossessed people of onetime imperial strongholds. It’s impressive that he would be so daring to confront these subjects in the early 1970s, when World War II—and Japan’s heinous activities across southeast Asia—had ended only a generation before. More impressive still is Imamura’s casual, unhysterical tone. Appearing on-screen he treats his subjects as he would family members, in effect naturalizing their stories. One never gets the feeling that Imamura is unearthing a horrible past (even though official Japanese culture generally prefers that shameful history remain buried; note that even today the government refuses to issue an apology to the Korean women forced to become “comfort women” for Japanese imperial soldiers). Rather he proceeds from the conviction that these stories are essential to the culture to which he belongs and for which he must take responsibility.