Criterion Prediction #66: Profound Desires of the Gods, by Alexander Miller
Title: Profound Desires of the Gods
Director: Shohei Imamura
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Choichiro Kawarazaki, Kazuo Kitamura, Hideko Okiyama, Yoshi Kato
Synopsis: Kariya is an industrialist who travels to the remote Kurage island to survey the land so they can irrigate a nearby Sugar Mill. Upon his arrival, he is enamored by the strange inhabitants who populate the island, namely the Futori family, outcasts among the clannish locals for their various misdeeds (incest, fishing with dynamite, violating religious customs). Despite his life back in Tokyo, Kariya becomes fixated on Uma, developing an affair with a member of the dysfunctional Futori family.
Critique: It would be easy to call Imamura a director of “weird” movies, but his inventory of bizarre characters and their stranger-than-fiction scenarios is the backbone of his filmography, both in his feature films and documentaries.
Imamura’s affection of nebulous characters that appear in films like The Eel or The Pornographers seems to be cut from the same cloth as his documentaries, namely History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess or Karayuki-San, The Making of a Prostitute. The intersecting apex of his work could be the fact-based Vengeance is Mine, a bewildering chronicle of a serial killer whose profile is so apoplectically erratic it would thwart any seasoned investigator. Profound Desires of the Gods could seem like a serene contrast to the deceptively tawdry characters that inhabit the director’s work. This film is a shift from the rough-hewn urban dramas, therefore widening the canvas of interpretation – I think Imamura’s 1968 film could be described as the work of a surreal anthropologist.
While it’s nearly impossible to see a film like Profound Desires of the Gods without getting philosophical, you’re more likely to be seduced by the overwhelmingly (yet unimposing) gorgeous visual scope. Cinematographer Masao Tochizawa’s sensuous photography capture an enveloping atmosphere in the setting that is so experiential the film has the ability to swallow you whole when you think it would drag its feet.
There’s a constant distancing sense from the more boldly metaphysical director’s like Buñuel , or Resnais whose solipsistic “take it or leave it” style are occasionally thought provoking as much as they can be alienating.
On the surface, Profound Desires of the Gods would be in line with the likes of Last Year at Marienbad or The Milky Way, but Imamura seems to be more grounded than most lofty arthouse directors. While his film poses some big questions, an abridged description could be termed as an existential uncovering of human behavior simultaneously (or by default) becomes an anthropological microcosm of modern society. At the forefront, I don’t think there’s a “wrong” way to interpret this film.
Imamura opts out of his gitty stylizations for an uncharted landscape of untapped beauty, and is savvy enough to let his inner stylist take a backseat to what is in front of the camera. A curious student to the human seed, Imamura’s grand scale lensing feels like an unusual hybrid of an amply measured pseudo-documentary paired with ambitiously mounted creative sincerity. The island becomes its own character by default. There are no panning helicopter shots or sweeping vistas; the locale steals the show.
Watching the local inhabitants co-exist with the Futori family provides another layer in the pantheon of surveying human behavior, playing our best and worst tendencies against a backdrop of societal remove. This film leaves you with some dots to connect, and a frayed map to put them together, but after all is said and done, will you really want to? The interesting movies pose significant questions along with bigger answers, but the enigmatic one’s point you toward the rabbit hole and says “go”, and that’s proof of Imamura operating at the peak of his powers.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Discovering Profound Desires of the Gods was an invigorating experience, and for those who are fans of the director deserve to have a movie of this magnitude alongside the director’s other films featured in The Criterion Collection. Profound Desires of the Gods is a part of the Masters of Cinema series, as well as being a featured title on Criterion’s defunct Hulu channel; this is too big a film to ignore and the visual elegance deserves an accessible Blu-ray release.