Tadashi Imai (1912-1991) was one of Japan's most prolific and controversial 20th-century film directors. He infused his staunch left-wing political views into almost all his films, sometimes succeeding in combining masterful art with social criticism, but at other times crafting didactic films that succeeded only as propaganda.
The son of a priest, Tadashi Imai was born in Tokyo in 1912. He rebelled against authority from a young age, showing a disdain for traditional religion, culture, and social structure. During the time Imai was a teen, dissent from the official ideology was considered a capital crime in Japan, so the young man's political views were highly dangerous. At the Imperial University in Tokyo in the early 1930s, Imai became heavily involved in leftist political causes. Although arrested twice for his role in protests, he was released both times.
In 1934 Imai began writing screenplays as a vehicle for expressing his strong political beliefs, and the first became the 1939 feature film Numazu Heigakkô ("The Numazu Military Academy"), released in 1939, a scathing although amateurish profile of one of Japan's most prestigious military training grounds.
Despite his left-wing political views, Imai became a staunch supporter of Japanese imperial power during World War II. His films released during that period were little more than wartime propaganda in support of Emperor Hirohito's regime. After the war, however, Imai gradually returned to making topical films that displayed a more and more overt Marxist bent. His immediate post-war films, few of which garnered any substantial international audience, included political thrillers such as 1946's Minshu no Teki ("Enemy of the People"), the intriguing 1947 film 24 Hours of a Secret Life, starring Setsuko Hara, and Aoi Sanmyaku ("The Green Mountains"), released in 1949.
While most Japanese directors were making safe, non-controversial historical dramas or contemporary light comedies and romances, Imai continually ventured into socially volatile territory during Japan's long years of recovery from losing the war. While his Mata Au Hi Made ("Until We Meet Again"), released in 1950, enjoyed limited exposure abroad, films such as Dokkoi Ikiteru (1950), Himeyuri No To (1953), and Susureba Koso (1954) did not receive much attention outside Japan.
Imai's films sometimes drew on the works of modern writers trying to break through Japan's postwar cultural and social malaise. Nigorie (1954) is a three-part film based on the short stories of Ichiyo Higuchi. Here Imai casts a penetrating gaze on the difficulties faced by three young Japanese women: one is cruelly abused in an arranged marriage; another is a prostitute thwarted in her efforts to gain respectable employment; and yet another is a young servant whose rich employers make her life hellish.
In the mid-1950s, Imai directed Koko Ni Izumi Ari and then Mahiru No Ankoku, the second film which first gained him significant attention in the United States under the titles Darkness at Midnight, Darkness at Noon or Darkness at Midday. A crime thriller and courtroom drama, the film concerns a young loner who confesses to the grisly murder of an older married couple and then fingers two men as accomplices. Their cases are railroaded through the legal system and are all found guilty before the full truth about the murder is known.
By the mid-1950s Imai had gained a reputation as a filmmaker who championed the working classes. His 1957 film, Kome ("The Rice People") is a typical example of his focus and became a controversial but acclaimed entry at the Cannes Film Festival. In the film a group of struggling rice farmers attempt to fend off government bureaucrats and predatory corporate interests. A group of young rebels among them refuse to follow their ancestors as rice growers, instead making their living by fishing and stealing from other farmers.
Imai continued to direct films at a prodigious rate in the late 1950s. Jun'ai Monogatari ("The Story of a Pure Love") and Yoru no Tsuzani—released to English-speaking audiences under the titles The Adulteress, The Adulterous Wife, or Night Drum—each dealt with the intersecting problems of romantic relationships and social conventions. Filmed in 1957, Jun'ai Monogatari was a big success at the 1958 Berlin Film Festival. It concerns a young couple who are battling against a society that stymies their love. The young woman is a victim of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. She has anemia and is slowly dying, and her condition is worsened by the repeated beatings she has to endure in a reformatory. Set in 18th-century Japan, Yoru no Tsuzani depicts a man who neglects his wife and is frequently gone from home. When in desperation the wife turns to another man for comfort, she becomes a social outcast. The law demands that both the adulterous wife and her lover be executed. The woman's husband, realizing his own neglect is to blame, attempts to persuade the authorities not to carry out their responsibilities.
In 1959 Imai released Kiku To Isamu ("Kiko and Isamu"), a film about two young boys growing up in poverty. Both boys are subject to prejudice and discrimination because their fathers were black American GI's stationed in Japan as part of the postwar American occupation. Imai is unsparing in his depiction of Japanese racism.
Imai's prolific pace slowed a bit in the 1960s. He made a samurai film titled Bushido Zankoku Monogatari that was distributed to English-speaking audiences as Oath of Obedience, Cruel Tales of Bushido and Cruel Story of the Samurai's Way. Some critics hailed the film as a masterpiece, making it perhaps Imai's best-known work. He followed with Echigo Tsutsuishi Oyashirazu in 1964 and Adauchi ("Revenge") the following year, neither of which received wide distribution outside Japan. Later in the decade he returned to prominence with three films of uneven quality. 1967's Satogashi Ga Kowareru Toki ("When the Cookie Crumbles") was based on a novel by Aiyako Sono about a Japanese actress whose life resembles that of Marilyn Monroe. Fushin No Taki ("The Time of Reckoning") transforms a screwball-comedy plot into a sober study of a successful businessman with serious relationship problems involving three women: his wife of ten years who announces she is pregnant by another man; a mistress who wants to have a baby with him; and an ex-lover who claims he fathered her son.
In 1969, Imai's Hashi no Nai Kawa ("The River without a Bridge") returned to his favorite subject: the plight of the working classes. In the movie, newly freed peasant laborers battle bias as they try to win their freedom and equality in modern Japan. Imai makes the plot into a farcical black comedy that ends up with a class struggle over a prize flag won in a friendly local competition that turns serious.
After two unremarkable films in the early 1970s—Aa Koe Naki Tomo (1972) and Kaigun Tokubetsu Shonen Hei (1973)—Imai made the biographical film Takiji Kobayashi in 1974. The title character is a Japanese writer whose life was tragic. Raised in poverty in the Japanese countryside, he fell in love with a prostitute who would not marry him and instead married a woman he did not love. Kobayashi's writings betrayed his leftist views, and the Imperial authorities arrest him and tortured him to death in 1933. His works were banned until after the war and only later was his greatness acknowledged. In making this film Imai returned to the struggles of his own youth, and the film gained considerable acclaim worldwide as one of the director's most potent and effective efforts.
Continuing to alternate between overtly political films and others that focused on personal relationships, Imai made Yoba and Ani Imouto ("Older Sister, Younger Brother") in 1976. Ani Imouto is the story of a loving but tempestuous sibling relationship as a brother becomes upset when his sister becomes pregnant and beats up her lover. In 1980's Kosodate Gokko ("The Proper Way"), Imai sent a surprising message of protest against modern liberal education with a story about a childless couple who take care of the rebellious daughter of a pompous academician. They straighten her out by using old-fashioned teaching methods.
One of Imai's most powerful films was released in 1982. Himeyuri no To (literally, "Himeyuri Lily Tower") takes the point of view of a group of Japanese nurse trainees working in Okinawa during World War II. They cheerily tend to their duties caring for the wounded in between potent scenes of brutality by both the U.S. and Japanese armed forces during their decisive battle. Imai condemns both sides in his saga about the U.S. invasion of Okinawa. The film was a huge box-office hit in Japan but didn't translate well for American audiences.
After having made films for nearly half a century, Imai tried something new as he approached age 70: an animated featured released as Yuki the Snow Fairy. Set in feudal Japan, the film focuses on Yuki, an adolescent goddess whose task is to clean up the Earth, both by ridding it of oppressive authorities and by covering it with a blanket of snow. She tames a wild stallion and stirs up a peasant revolt. The animation is whimsical but the message is a bit heavy handed. Now in his late 70s, Imai directed his final and most significant films, Senso to Seishin ("War and Youth"). In a prologue, a contemporary Japanese schoolgirl (played by actress Yuki Kudo) tries to discover facts about the war from her father, whose memories are too painful for him to share. Then she learns about her mute aunt's dead child, who was lost during the Allied firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. The film then shifts to tell the story of the aunt (also played by Kudo), and how she loses her husband and child in the chaos of the air raids. Imai used donations from air raid survivors to underwrite the film so he could make and distribute it without the control of major studios, thus capping his career with a thought-provoking, powerful film made completely independently. A few months after its international release, Imai died in Toyko.
"Tadashi Imai," All-Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com/(February 23, 2002).
"Tadashi Imai," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/(February 23, 2002).