Imamura made a riotous return to the films that best defines his signature artistic and political voice – the outrageous, impudent, cutting, subversive, cheekily modernist, tour de force works that he made from Endless Desire roughly till A Man Vanishes, examining the oddities, inconsistencies and sordid underbelly of Japanese history – with the late career gem Zegen. Sandwiched between the messy allegory of The Ballad of Narayama and the haunting brilliance of Black Rain, this had the maverick filmmaker in his familiar territory of gleeful irreverence and gallows humour with its ribald, farcical, lashing takedown of Japan’s dark history of imperialism, brutal expansionism and obsessive nationalism that industrialized both its prostitution rings (a subject that Imamura was endlessly fascinated by) and war machinery (which he clearly abhorred). Based on its protagonist’s memoir, the film followed the wildly amoral life of Iheji Muraoka (Ken Ogata), who rises from a penurious, bedraggled castaway to become a pimp, owner of a brothel chain and self-professed perpetuator of Japanese patriotic interests. While working as apprentice to a barber in Hong Kong he’s arm-twisted into going on a clandestine mission to Manchuria, and post that – taking to heart the hyper-nationalist advices of his pompous boss – he founds a bordello with immigrant Japanese women believing he’s serving his Emperor’s cause; and, before long, he expands his business to Malay too. His comical journey was made further eventful courtesy a smart, striking prostitute (Mitsuko Baisho) he’s cuckolded to. The sprawling narrative – which covered a wide temporal arc from the start of 20th century till WW2 – was filled with authentic zeitgeist, exuberant setpieces, mordant satire, and memorable performances led by a terrific, sleazy and darkly funny turn by Ogata.
Director: Shohei Imamura
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Biopic