cast: Hiroyuki Nagato and Osamu Takizawa
director: Shôhei Imamura
90 minutes (PG) 1958
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Shôhei Imamura’s first film Stolen Desire has seldom received much love or attention from western audiences. Included here almost as a DVD extra on the ‘masters of cinema’ release of Imamura’s fifth feature Pigs & Battleships, Stolen Desire did not actually receive a set of English subtitles until the US boutique DVD label Criterion decided to re-issue a load of Imamura’s early films. Given that Imamura’s later films are arguably better known than his early ones and that Stolen Desire is quite a rough piece of filmmaking, this lack of attention is perhaps understandable but, if you look beyond the grinding misanthropy, the sketchily-drawn characters and the narrative more concerned with intellectual posturing than telling a story, then you will find a film that serves as a brilliant introduction to the films of Imamura.
The film begins with a nod to documentary films about postwar Japan: cue stock aerial photography and a voiceover that makes bizarre generalisations about an entire city. From there, we move to a tent where a group of down-at-heel kabuki actors are eking out a living in-between strip shows. The voiceover informs us that when one of the dancers is sick, it is not uncommon for the woman from the ticket office to get on stage and show her arse. It’s that kind of gig. As the actors grind through their lines to an empty house, one of the actors suddenly stops mid-sentence and refuses to go on until he is paid.
Apparently it is one thing to work for free but quite another to work for free and not be seen. What begins as an on-stage tiff soon explodes into an all out row as actors and stagehands spill out into the street and vent their frustration at the way in which the aged actor-turned-impresario and his family are running the company. Chief among the discontents is the young, ambitious and idealistic director Kunida (Hiroyuki Nagato) whose decision to leave the troupe in order to work in television precipitates the collapse of the company.
However, despite his frustration with the company and having been head-hunted by a successful TV producer, Kunida remains oddly attached to his shitty job so, when the elderly actor-turned-impresario announces his intention to start a new company and tour the provinces, he immediately signs up along with all the other unhappy and unpaid actors and stagehands.
Stolen Desire is a film that crackles with autobiographical realism and the urge to settle old scores and forge new paths. Indeed, this film makes a lot more sense once you realise that it is a direct reaction to Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic A Story Of Floating Weeds (1934).
By the late 1950s, Ozu was a god among Japanese filmmakers. While Kurosawa was packing in the audiences and wowing international critics with his samurai epics, Ozu was quietly producing a series of films that perfectly captured what it meant to be Japanese and middle-class in the postwar era. Almost painfully of-the-moment, Ozu’s films pay due respect to the Japan of the past whilst also acknowledging that social change is both necessary and occasionally a good thing.
Elegant, complex and drenched with the sort of dignified emotional restraint that many Japanese people saw as an integral part of their national character, Ozu’s films are everything you would expect from a culture that has been dragged into the 20th century by a humiliating military defeat. Imamura cut his cinematic teeth as Ozu’s assistant and, when the time came for him to make his own film, it was only natural that he should try to step out of Ozu’s shadow by making it clear how different his sensibilities were to those of his master and how better to make that difference apparent than by directing a vicious attack on one of Ozu’s best-loved films?
Like many of Ozu’s later films, A Story Of Floating Weeds is a film about the inevitability of social change and the old guard’s dignified retreat from the stage as the young come into their prime. Set amidst a troupe of travelling kabuki actors, it tells the story of how love can both end the life of one troupe and begin the life of another. Tellingly, Stolen Desire’s old guard possess no dignity at all.
Initially, things go well for the new company. Leaving the city for the provinces, the actors come across a small town that is positively enraptured by the idea that a group of actors will be performing on their doorsteps. The joy of the townspeople is wonderfully conveyed in a scene where the entire population turns out in order to browbeat the owner of a large tent into lending it to the actors. This love of theatre is then explained through a series of joyously misanthropic scenes in which the townspeople announce their intent to ogle the actresses and sell stuff to the audience. Patrons of the art they ain’t.
Seemingly buoyed-up by the unexpected enthusiasm of their audience, the actors and stage-hands shake themselves from their torpor long enough to rehearse a couple of times before collapsing back into the pit of laziness and spite that forced them to leave the city in the first place. As actors bed local widows and people prefer getting drunk to learning their lines, Kunida’s anger with both the troupe and himself begins to grow and fester. It’s a process that is only accelerated by the fact that the actor-turned-impresario’s daughters seem intent upon seducing him in an effort to prevent him from leaving the company. In Ozu’s theatre company, love is a mode of renewal. In Imamura’s theatre company, it is a cynical means of control.
Much like Pigs & Battleships, Stolen Desire is a film steeped in the ugly frenzy of modern life. Imamura drags us kicking and screaming from plotline to plotline and character to character without allowing much time or space for anything to bed down. Plot points loom up out of darkness and then disappear from sight only to be half-resolved with a blink, a nod or a drunken scream. The film’s characters walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy and it is absolutely impossible to know which way the film will take them.
At one point, a group of villagers decide to abduct an actress and carry her off into the night and Imamura plays the scene for laughs. Life in modern Japan, he seems to be suggesting, is so ugly and random that attempted gang rape can serve as light comic relief. While this narrative frenzy results in a film that is no easier to follow than Pigs & Battleships, Stolen Desire is more accessible simply because only a few of its characters emerge as individuals.
The key to the film is the relationship between Kunida, the young director, and the elderly actor-turned-impresario, Yamamura (Osamu Takizawa). Yamamura was once a famous actor who began a theatre company as part of a desire for greater creative autonomy. Having spent decades running the company, Yamamura is now too old and too listless to aspire to anything more than living a comfortable life.
However, in order to live a comfortable life, Yamamura needs to exploit a group of actors and stagehands and so his organisational talents have atrophied to the point where they involve nothing more than slapping people down to keep them in their place and building them up to ensure that they do not leave. As a young man with plenty of ideas, Kunida is eager to take on more and more responsibility but while Yamamura is happy to give Kunida more work, he refuses to give him any real power or credit. Unable to do what he wants and yet unwilling to leave, Kunida grinds his teeth and stews in his own juices.
This relationship crackles with the sort of realism that can only be autobiographical. In fact, anyone who has ever had anything to do with non-professional creative institutions will immediately recognise the dynamic of having younger and more ambitious people grind their teeth in frustration while older people in leadership positions keep all the fun stuff for themselves and their mates. Kunida’s combination of fear and self-loathing is beautifully realised as is Yamamura’s shameless movement between cynicism, realism and idealism. Part of the reason why Stolen Desire fails to completely satisfy as a film is that while Kunida’s reactions are beautifully observed, they lack any sense of motivation.
Why would a young, talented and ambitious man forego a career in television in order to work with a bunch of lazy has-beens? Imamura never explains this decision but therein lies its autobiographical power: why do young people put up with the older generation when they could just as easily strike out on their own? By refusing to explain Kunida’s actions, Imamura is also highlighting both their irrationality and the absurdity of a system that allows old people to hog positions of leadership despite their lack of dynamism or ambition.
Stolen Desire is a film that is full of rage not only at the old guard who refuse to let go of the past but also at the young turks who doff their caps and pay their dues like good little citizens. Stolen Desire is the film of a young man who is angry with not just his generation and his society, but also with himself. The question is: if Kunida is Imamura, does that mean that Yamamura is Ozu?
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Stolen Desire comes as part of the same ‘masters of cinema’ blu-ray and DVD package as Pigs & Battleships. While I have not seen it, the package also contains a booklet of stills and essays by the superlative critic and expert in Japanese film Tony Rayns.