Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura

by Glenn Erickson Dec 29, 2020


If you’re after real nonconformist filmmaking with a political bent, Shohei Imamura’s daring and often sexually candid pictures fit the bill. Arrow gathers three of his best from the 1980s, the international success The Ballad of Narayama, the stunning Hiroshima aftermath drama Black Rain and the largely unseen, often wickedly funny Zegen. Each is disturbing, politically pointed and relentlessly honest. Arrow appoints this three- title set with new expert audio commentaries and Tony Rayns featurettes, plus a fat essay booklet. Zegen, we are told, has never before been available subtitled in English.

Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura
The Ballad of Narayama, Zegen, Black Rain
Arrow Academy
1983-1989 / Color, B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 130, 125, 123 min. / Street Date December 8, 2020 / 99.95
Directed by Shohei Imamura

Films by the Japanese director Shohei Imamura have one thing in common — they’re as provocative as a slap in the face. Our introduction to Imamura’s tales of sex and social injustice was the disturbing Vengeance is Mine, a cold look at a serial killer. Then we saw his ‘thesis thriller’ on military Occupation corruption Pigs and Battleships and his grim tale of prostitution The Insect Woman. I remember Imamura’s movies being described as about survival, not transcendence.’  We’re told that Imamura’s skill as a political conscience was further honed by a series of exposé TV documentaries. One was about soldiers that remained in other countries after the war rather than return to Japan, and another about Japanese women forced into prostitution during wartime. We also reviewed two late-career Imamura DVDs. 2001’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is a curious mix of sex and magic realism. Imamura’s bizarre contribution to the portmanteau commemorative film September 11 (2004) seemed unrelated to the 9-11 attacks.

Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura collects three beautifully restored feature films — one acknowledged masterpiece, a shunned but worthy cinematic black sheep, and one of the more sensitive and artistic reactions to the Hiroshima bombings.


The Ballad of Narayama
1983 / Color / 130 min. / Narayama bushiko
Starring: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Aki Takejo, Tonpei Hidari, Seiji Kurasaki, Kaoru Shimamori, Ryutaro Tatsumi, Junko Takada, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Mitsuko Baisho.
Cinematography: Masao Tochizawa
Film Editor: Hajime Okayasu
Original Music: Shinichiro Ikebe
From stories by Shichiro Fukazawa
Produced by Goro Kusakabe, Jiro Tomoda
Written and Directed by
Shohei Imamura

Imamura’s most internationally celebrated film is the Cannes Palm d’Or winner The Ballad of Narayama, a tale of life in a remote mountain hamlet sometime in the 19th century. Living in constant fear of starvation, the farmers abide by a brutal social code, and Imamura doesn’t flinch at depicting its unpleasant details. Keisuke Kinoshita directed an earlier, more stylized version of the same story in 1958; Imamura’s aim seems to be to obliterate the myth of the good old days in traditional country hamlets. It’s like the Middle Ages up in those woods.

Tatsuhei’s (Ken Ogata) tiny mountaintop community endures constant hardship and food shortages. Their traditions have adapted in harsh, cruel ways. Unwanted baby boys are often killed at birth. Baby girls are kept because they can be sold, presumably into lives of prostitution. Neighbors accuse one another of thievery and most keep hidden hoards of foodstuffs, often stolen. Most barbaric of all, when the elderly reach the age of seventy they’re required to go to the slopes of Narayama Mountain to die. That time has come for Tatsuhei’s mother Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto). She is in fine shape and still productive, but believes firmly in the law.

The Ballad of Narayama is a rumination about life and nature that reminds us how close we are to our primitive roots. The farming town is a closed system unable to feed the all of its workers, and something has to give. The little clans fall back on ritual superstitions and momentary, selfish pleasures. The movie is a series of guilty, depressing vignettes. A dead infant found in a rice paddy only starts an argument over ‘baby dumping rights.’ Relatives executed for thievery are simply not mentioned any more. Tatshuhei’s no-good father simply disappeared years ago; the family thinks he’s now a ghost wandering the hills.


Firstborn sons are the only males with rights. The others are prohibited from marrying and allowed to stay only if they work. The village has a large population of frustrated, ragged ‘second sons.’ Tatsuhei’s brother is a nearly feral lout known for his foul smell and a habit of having sex with the neighbor’s dog. From the attitudes of the brother’s equally dispossessed peers, his degeneracy isn’t atypical.

The local sex customs are baffling. Plenty of forbidden coupling goes on in the woods between lonely young women and men; any offspring are murdered or sold. Imamura stresses the base savagery of it all by inter-cutting this grubby sex with graphic shots of various animals copulating and eating one another. Even more disturbing is the primitive response to lawbreaking. When one household is discovered to be systematically stealing food, a vigilante group attacks and kills the entire family. One daughter living elsewhere is tricked into going home just before the raid, and perishes with her kin. When it’s all over the neighbors split what they can recover from the murdered family’s house, and never mention them again.

Tatsuhei seems a fair man in general and his mother Orin is a gem. The unselfish woman tries to make a new wife welcome in the home. A widow is known to be bedding various unmarried men but turns the somewhat revolting Tatsuhei away, so Orin humbles herself to find another woman willing to sleep with him. In one traumatic scene Orin purposely smashes her front teeth. For the rest of the film she grins with a shattered smile. We hope that actress Sumiko Sakamoto faked her appearance by removing a denture; one online source claims that she had teeth surgically removed for the role. If that’s true it certainly trumps Robert De Niro’s ‘extreme acting’ weight gain for Raging Bull.

The tone becomes more spiritual and poignant in the final act. Over Tatsuhei’s objections, Orin chooses to accept her fated death before the appointed time. She passes on her private knowledge to other family members and observes the ceremonial preparations. Tatsuhei obediently carries her up the mountain trails to a forbidden holy site, the place of death. They share an emotionally shattering embrace as snow begins to fall. The horrible abandonment/suicide of Orin makes us think of our own culture’s faulty ways of dealing with death and dying. The Ballad of Narayama concludes with a universal message and an emotional sting.

Because it recognizes the positive potential in people the show is ultimately more memorable than the nihilistic Vengeance is Mine. Ken Ogata plays the hateful killer in that film, which makes his caring Tatshuei character here seem all the more human.


1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 125 min.
Starring: Ken Ogata, Mitsuko Baisho, Chun-Hsiung Ko, Norihei Miki, Hiroyuki Konishi, Sansho Shinsui, Tetta Sugimoto, Taiji Tonoyama, Leonard Kuma, Fujio Tokita, Minori Terada.
Cinematography: Masao Tochizawa
Film Editor: Hajime Okayasu
Original Music: Shinichiro Ikebe
Written by Shohei Imamura, Kota Okabe
Produced by Yoshihiko Sugiyama, Kunio Takeshige, Jiro Oba
Directed by
Shohei Imamura

Tony Rayns tells us that Shohei Imamura made an earlier ‘historical’ film, a light, lusty drama set in the Meiji Restoration Period called Eijanaika. His follow-up to his international success The Ballad of Narayama is an unusual ‘history sidebar’ tale that begins around 1901 and ends in 1942. The epic Zegen mixes political criticism with ribald sex content — not graphic, but sexually explicit. Filmed on a lavish scale, the movie is entertaining and often very funny. Just the same, it takes seriously the career of an ambitious young Japanese who begins as a barber and becomes a major business ‘boss’ in the East Indies. Zegen translates as ‘pimp.’ The expensive show wasn’t released in the United States; Rayns thinks that Arrow’s Blu-ray is its premiere with English language subtitles.

The major subversive content here probably didn’t ‘travel’ well to other markets — the movie is usually listed as a sex comedy when it’s really a sly critique of Japan’s self-image. The rise of a 20th Century vicelord in the Japanese sphere of influence is used to comment on the hypocritical, exploitative nature of Japanese expansionism. The East Indies setting is certainly fresh.

The energetic and ambitious Iheiji Muraoka (Ken Ogata again) escapes from servitude on a ship and lands all but naked in Hong Kong. The Japanese consul helps him clean up and he takes a job as a trainee barber for an old shopkeeper. Iheiji is then conscripted to help a rigidly militarist soldier (Horoyuki Konishi) spy on the Russians in snowbound Manchuria. They use Japanese prostitutes to collect information. Iheiji  learns that most have been kidnapped or tricked into their lives. The one he falls in love with meets a bad end just as the two spies must flee.

Back in Hong Kong Iheiji finds that opportunists have already made changes. The old barber who befriended him was cheated by an Indian loan shark. Iheiji uses funds entrusted to him by the foolish Manchurian prostitutes to go into business. Under the warped delusion that everything he does is for the glory of the Emperor, he forms what becomes a chain of brothels. He steals prostitutes from local pirates and bluffs his way toward solvency. In this he is helped by Shiho (Mitsuko Baisho), an ex-girlfriend from long ago in Nagasaki. He forms a Yakuza-like gang to ‘buy’ more women in Japan, and spreads his houses across various East Indies cities. The Japanese consul allows this as he’s being paid off. Management details in the sex-trafficking business are eye-opening, but most of the stolen women are easy to boss around. Drastic measures are taken when they become pregnant. Iheiji buys big houses and entire rubber plantations. He believes his own BS, that his greed is helping to build the Empire for the beloved Emperor. He even starts a pro-Japanese charity, to further garnish his employees’ salaries for his own profit.

Trouble eventually arrives from multiple directions. Rival boss Wang (Chung-Hsiung Ko) cuts into his business and steals Shiho’s heart — he’s less ‘inspired’ than Iheiji but more romantic and much more financially stable. Iheiji’s world changes with the Russo-Japanese War, but things really go to pieces when Japan gets a new Emperor — who disapproves of the immoral exploitation of unfortunate young women. Caught between anti-Japanese sentiment among the Malays and his own country’s criminal crackdowns, Iheiji’s little empire has no future.


For Iheiji Muraoka survival is a matter of changing one’s beliefs to avoid unpleasant truths. Eheiji literally wears the Japanese battle flag when he storms a pirate brothel to ‘liberate’ the Japanese prostitutes into his personal employ.  The jingoistic notion that they are soldier-citizens ‘working’ for the glory of the Emperor is revolting is hypocritical nationalist poison, like the lie that the military enslavement of an entire region was a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.’ The message becomes explicit in Eheiji’s impoverished old age. When an entire Japanese army comes ashore to seize Malaya from the British, Eheiji’s senile brain gets the idea that they’ll have need of his sex services. That’s Shohei Imamura’s unflinching take on Japanese expansionism.

The movie is relentlessly funny in a black-comedy way. Rank injustice is the common denominator of business in these utterly corrupt Japanese trade outposts. Even the cruelties can be weirdly funny. All loyalty is based on economic advantage. When the fairly faithful Shiho defects to the handsome, tap-dancing Wang, she admits it’s because the Chinese crook can offer more security.

The show is loaded with nudity and sex scenes, not hardcore but explicit in implication. It’s cruelly amusing to see how fully sex was commercialized — 120 years ago. As always, Imamura’s direction is excellent and his storytelling skills sharp. Although the scenes move quickly we always understand what’s going on. Imamura doesn’t resort to conventional montages to bridge time gaps … the characters age impressively, especially Ken Ogata, who goes from a lean and hungry wharf rat to a bearded, contrary old goat in nicely-judged steps.


Black Rain
1989 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 123 min. / Kuroi ame
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa, Norihei Miki, Keisuke Ishida.
Cinematography:Takashi Kawamata
Film Editor: Hajime Okayasu
Original Music: Toru Takemitsu
Written by Shohei Imamura, Toshiro Ishido from a book by Masuji Ibuse
Produced by Hisao Iino
Directed by
Shohei Imamura

Japanese movies about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were produced as soon as the Occupation ended; Arrow just released the previously rare Hiroshima from 1953. Most of the bomb-related movies were not particularly popular. Akira Kurosawa’s forthright look at atom-age anxiety I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being) did not start a trend. Instead, stylized fantasies (1954’s Gojira) prevailed. The later Cold War scare pictures The Final War (Dai-sanji sekai taisen: Yonju-ichi jikan no kyofu, 1960) and The Last War (Sekai daisenso, 1961) depicted Japan as a helpless pawn trapped between dominant aggressor nations.

Made decades later Imamura’s Black Rain again dramatized the human suffering of the nuclear bombing, as if perceiving the need to educate a new generation. Even with a heightened level of grisly makeup effects, the confrontational director exercises notable restraint. Imamura called his changed approach ‘a quiet voice’ but his movie is emotionally wrenching just the same.

Young Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) has relocated away from Tokyo to be safe from firebombings. Although she’s outside Hiroshima when the atom bomb hits, she returns immediately by boat and is caught in a shower of ‘black rain’ — precipitation from the mushroom cloud filled with radioactive soot. Yasuko crosses the devastated city with her Uncle and Aunt, avoiding fires and downed power lines. They encounter blast victims they can hardly bear to look at. Shigematsu’s company supervisor sends him to a Buddhist monastery for a crash course in administering last rites to the dead.


Five years later Yasuko is living with her Uncle and Aunt in a rural community. The radio says that the Americans may use atomic weapons in the Korean conflict. Some of their neighbors have chronic radiation-sourced illnesses; all know that they may fall sick and die without warning. Yasuko obtains a legal bill of health and attempts to find a husband through a matchmaker. But she’s turned down when her prospective in-laws learn of her undesirable status as a Hiroshima survivor. The long-term radiation effects hit the community with a wave of sickness and death. Yasuko isn’t convinced that her legal bill of health document is accurate, as she entered the city on the first afternoon of the bombing. And of course, there was that black rain …

Black Rain sees the bombing as a twofold curse. The townspeople monitor their red blood cell count and set their hopes on Buddhist faith healers or arcane home remedies like drinking fish blood. Yasuko has become a pariah in a community that considers her damaged goods. The very mention of Hiroshima ruins a good marriage arrangement, even when the eager and desirable suitor says he doesn’t care.

Several flashbacks to the August 6, 1945 bombing are spread out through the narrative. Yasuko watches the mushroom cloud from several miles away. Her ill-fated walk into town is a nightmare, with survivors in shock or out of their minds. Voices cry out from beneath burning buildings. A boy is convinced that a horribly burned ‘thing’ is his brother only after he recognizes a belt buckle. At the city center, dead bodies have been turned into human-shaped pieces of charcoal — adults, children and babies.

Yoshiko Tanaka is highly sympathetic as the teenaged Yasuko, a cute girl with normal ambitions who sees her life reduced to an ever-narrowing set of unhappy choices. She eventually gravitates toward Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida), a sculptor who suffers from a serious wartime stress disorder. The two outcasts find a brief calm in each other’s company. He cracked under wartime stress and she’s afflicted by the sickness of the atomic age.

A final pacifist sentiment declares that, in terms of human suffering, an unjust peace is always preferable to a just war. For all its depiction of the horrors of the bombing, the film is remarkably free of political bias. Imamura stresses images of life going on, as when fish are seen jumping in the local carp pond.



Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray set of Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura is a handsome disc collection. Each of the three discs has its own keep case with handsome artwork by Tony Stella.

All three transfers are exemplary. The Ballad of Narayama is a great improvement on the older DVD, with brighter, richer color. Zegen is also pristine, giving us a chance to appreciate its impressive, epic-scale production. Black Rain was one of the very first DVDs I purchased back in 1997, from Image. Imamura must have decided that color would be inappropriate for the subject matter. The soundtracks are also in perfect shape. The music score for Black Rain is by the great Toru Takemitsu. It’s not one of his fully eccentric tracks with strange noises — he instead sneaks up on us with sombre, off balance notes that underline the intensity of Yasuko’s ordeal.

Expert Jasper Sharp contributes detailed commentaries for all three films, while the engaging Tony Rayns offers ‘appreciation’ discussions for each title, ranging from 25 minutes to almost an hour in length. Between their insights and the context offered by essayist Tom Mes, we get a full picture of Shohei Imammura’s approach to filmmaking.

Other extras are repeats from the AnimEigo DVD. A seventeen-minute extended ending was discarded before release. Filmed in color, it brings the story to a close in 1965. Alone and terminally ill, Yasuko becomes a religious mendicant. She eventually merges with what looks like some of Yuichi’s work, in a finish somewhat similar to that of Richard Attenborough’s Oh, What a Lovely War. It’s easy to see why this ‘Yoshiko: Final Chapter’ wasn’t used. It makes a good stand-alone short film. Yoshiko Tanaka also appears in a newer interview, admitting that she has never seen the other ending until now. Director Takashi Miike speaks briefly about the hard work of assisting Shohei Imamura.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New audio commentaries on all three films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; new featurette appreciations of all three films by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns; alternate color ending to Black Rain; archival interviews on Black Rain with actress Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director Takashi Miike; trailers, image galleries; BD-Rom original Japanese press kits for The Ballad of Narayama and Black Rain. Illustrated 60-page booklet containing new writing by Tom Mes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in three keep cases with a booklet in heavy card box
December 28, 2020

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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