The Insect Woman (review)

Re-Blogged from JapanCinema


Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman follows the life of Tomé, a woman born in a rural village who eventually finds her way to Tokyo before returning to the countryside at the film’s end. Released fifty years ago, The Insect Woman was an important film in the developing Japanese new wave cinema embodied by young directors like Imamura. The film can be seen as a response to Imamura’s one-time mentor Ozu, whose precise and formal style represented the quintessential Japanese film aesthetic that prevailed at the time.

The opening scene shows a beetle struggling to cross difficult terrain. After this we witness Tomé’s own birth in impoverished rural Japan. Imamura does not romanticize village life; the people are loutish and bawdy, but also pragmatic. Tomé is illegitimate, and there are repeated echoes of incest and troubling father-daughter relationships throughout the film. The meaning of marriage is unclear. The Insect Woman’s life is a struggle, and like an insect she advances through her life with tenacity. She goes from mill worker, to maid, to prostitute, to brothel madam, and then in one of the cycles that marks Imamura’s work, devolves back to cleaning woman before leaving the city just as she had arrived. Her daughter Nobuku supplants Tomé, just as Tomé herself supplanted the brothel madam Suma. Imamura takes delight in repeating scenes and dialog with different characters, such as when Tomé manipulates a reluctant call girl named Midori precisely as she herself was manipulated by Madam Suma. The film’s final scene shows Tomé struggling like an insect to climb a mountain in, brought low and older but otherwise unchanged by her life.


Criterion has done a beautiful job restoring the film. Unusually for its time, Imamura shot The Insect Woman entirely on location rather than on studio sets. This restricted his options in terms of lighting and lens work, and Imamura made the most of high contrast lighting, dramatic overhead shots, and unexpected freeze frames. The film’s style is marked by long takes with fixed camera positions and closeups that let actors move in and out of the frame, horizontally and vertically. There are strong contrasts between foreground and background figures, and we frequently see movement in one plane and not in the other. Watching the film makes me feel like I am sitting with Imamura as he experiments and innovates on the fly.

Watch Trailer:

A nice surprise is that Imamura did not use Tome’s story to make grand pronouncements about Japanese society. The film plays out loosely against major historical events without trying to make an awkward parallel between her life and Japanese history. The plot is enjoyably lean, and waxes neither melodramatic nor philosophical. If the film has a message, it is that life is a struggle and women in particular do what they must as opportunities present themselves. “Mama, what other way is there?” Noboku asks Tomé. The Insect Woman is an unvarnished, almost documentary examination about how a woman experienced and moved through her environment. She experiences no obligatory personal growth, psychological change, or character development as a result of events in her life. The Insect Woman is a key film marking a transition in Japanese cinema, but maybe more importantly it is just a wonderful chance to watch a filmmaker creatively experimenting with his medium. Recommended.


Indonesian Digital History Project 2.0

I created a second wordle from my edited translation of the much longer Gowa Chronicle, which has a similar sets of concerns about social relationships.


To check these patterns I also created a wordle using the reign of a single ruler, Sultan Ala’uddin, who ruled Gowa until 1639 and famously oversaw its official conversion to Islam. The account of his reign in the chronicle is richer than most, and contains abundant historical details about conquests and other developments during this key period in Makassar’s history. Here it is:


Still looking this over, but despite the greater richness of reportage about the events of his reign it looks at first glance as if the same concerns about social place and position dominate.

Impromptu Indonesian History Digital Humanities Project

I created this wordle as an experiment using the text from my translation of the Talloq Chronicle, a seventeenth-century historical manuscript from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Talloq Chronicle wordle

One thing this visual representation does superbly is underscore the intense focus on names and titles – karaeng and daeng are the two main ones – in this genre of Makassarese history. Kinship and other relationships are also important, but decidedly secondary. The prominence of nouns over verbs is also striking, and emphasizes again the genealogical nature and function of the chronicle: to locate individuals in their proper web of ancestors and relatives.

What is great about this way of representing information is that of course I knew all this already, but that’s because I spent months reading and translating this text. Someone with no familiarity with the Talloq Chronicle can at a glance gain an intuitive understanding of the social role of this important work.

New NFL Draft Rules for 2014

OK, we all know that the NFL draft is now a huge business and owns a significant chunk of the off-season attention of fans. The “who’s rising” and “who’s falling” mock drafts are priceless little comedies on their own. To stand back and look at the amount of ink and pixels spilled for months is alternately bewildering and just a plain hoot.

But the draft itself is, to be honest, kinda dull. Sure, we are all interested to hear what our team does, and the teams we hate too. And we are captivated by the projected picks who fall Icarus-like from where they were “supposed” to go (I’m looking at you, Barkley). But the whole things needs more oomph. More drama. More entertainment.

So with that in mind I’ve come up with (I was going to write “drafted”…) a list of rules that the NFL should implement for the 2014 draft.

1. Quarterbacks can only be taken in the 1st and 7th rounds. First off, if you don’t think he is a star in the making, don’t draft him at this position. Just take a defensive lineman and move on. Second, this will make picks at the end of the 1st draft much more valuable, giving us trades and keeping me (frankly) from just going to bed.

2. Teams may only draft two players from the same conference. Teams also get a 3rd round compensatory pick in next year’s draft if they don’t take any players from the SEC. Variety, people!

3. Following a coin toss (not by a replacement ref), either the 2nd or the 3rd round will be conducted as a speed dating 2 minute round.

4. Teams may draft one punter, kicker, designated long-snapper, or Australian Rules Football player at any time without surrendering a draft pick.

5. In rounds 5 & 6 player picks will be randomly drawn from a hat.

C’mon Roger Goodell, work with me here!


Liberal Arts & Humanities “Skills” (#shudder)

Trying to get my thoughts down here on the push to promote liberal arts and humanities education because it helps students develop skills like critical thinking, oral and written communication, evidence-based argumentation, collaboration, etc. I’ve seen this a lot from politicians recently (who mostly of the time think that higher education is only for job training), and today from the Association of American Colleges & Universities, who just released their annual employer survey.

I fully agree that a good liberal arts education can indeed foster the development of these skills. But so can lots of fields. A good social science education, or even a well-designed STEM education can also promote critical thinking, communication, and the like. So there is nothing uniquely LA/H about this. Are we selling ourselves short? Missing the target? Dooming ourselves to a losing endeavor by conceding and making this our focus?

Particularly distressing are websites like Indiana University’s “Selling Your Degree” – painful, and not just the obligatory/pleading Lee Iacoca quote. A quick google search can multiple this sort of example ad nauseam.

Skills are a useful byproduct of LA/H education. They are not its main purpose or learning outcome. I prefer to think in terms of something that this kind of education does much better than other fields: developing certain characteristics. Skills are instrumental and utilitarian; characteristics like a passion for life-long learning are much more. Christopher Long writes similarly of habits:

“These habits include the capacity to communicate effectively, to appreciate diversity, to perceive globally, and to respond to complexity with nuance. But the cardinal virtue of the liberal arts is ethical imagination: the disposition to envision new possibilities of more just, enriching relationships beyond existing realities. This involves the capacity to discern and understand perspectives other than our own.”

So I simply do not want to concede the field of play to utilitarian, vocational concerns. AAC&U is a wonderful organization, and I applaud their efforts from a strategic perspective. We should support this discourse about skills when engaging with employers, politicians, and others because it is good strategy. But we should not lose sight of what we really want and what we really value.


Martin Scorsese’s The Big Shave

This is from a current project “The Past as Imagined Future: Multimedia Interpretations of American Intervention in Vietnam.” Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate American intervention in the war in Vietnam during the early-mid 1960s is, as they say, a Key Historical Moment. This essay project examines how the moment of American intervention has been historically narrated and thus interpreted in five objects: a short film, a memoir, a scholarly monograph, a painting, and a feature film. In particular, I analyze each in terms of how they represented the decision or moment of intervention in terms of a narrative relationship with a posited future. This is the first installment of the project…

Scorcese made this five-and-a-half minute experimental film as a class project at NYU in 1967. Before reading on, watch it: The film is easily described: a young man enters a stark bathroom and shaves repeatedly, in the process cutting himself over and over until blood streams down his face and over his razor,  faucet, sink, and body. His last act of shaving is decisive: he cuts his throat by drawing the razor across his neck. All the while Bunny Berigan’s 1939 jazz recording of “I Can’t Get Started” plays jauntily. In the ending title card we see the words “VIET ’67.”

Some context: Scorcese made the film for a planned weeklong anti-Vietnam protest “The Angry Arts Against the War,” though it actually premiered at Jacques Ledox’s 1968 Festival of Experimental Cinema in Belgium. The young filmmaker was battling depression and at the time had trouble shaving.[1] The Big Shave succinctly voices both the political and the personal.

The power and nature of the film’s symbolism is unambiguous. “The man’s self-destructive obsessive behavior stands as a metaphor for the United States’ involvement in the conflict,” writes one commentator. [2] “The methodical nature of the violence in the short,” continues another, “is an analogue for the war machine that tears apart men like this with that same casual disregard for their lives and their bodies.”[3] We might add that the young man’s motivation and single-mindedness is symbolic of what Scorsese saw as the United States’ obstinacy in pursuing a near-suicidal war of its own volition and regardless of the actions of others. So too Scorsese’s use of a pristine, almost clinical bathroom and focus on the razor as a tool emphasizes an American fascination with technology to fight what William Gibson called a “perfect war.”[4]

But what I would especially like to highlight is that in 1967 – before the Tet Offensive, before Vietnamization, before Cambodia, before My Lai – Scorsese prophesies that American intervention will turn out catastrophically. He imagines events as leading to a specific outcome. This disaster still lay in the future, but Scorsese depicts the United States as moving stupidly, methodically, destructively, calmly, irrevocably toward that end. It is not so much the decision to fight a war in Vietnam that Scorsese criticizes, but the horrific ending that such a decision will bring.

The Big Shave also gains a strong temporal trajectory from the contrast between the shaver at the beginning and at the end of the short. The film’s beginning is banal. We see shots of the clean, white, and empty bathroom, then close-ups of the gleaming white porcelain and shining silver fixtures. An ordinary young man enters. His initial lack of emotion emphasizes the normality of the scene. We have no way of knowing what is about to happen. Scorsese gives us a moment of subtle eroticism by showing him taking his white t-shirt off three times; it is suggestive of the innocence and vitality of young manhood.

But into the safe domesticity of the American bathroom comes the violence of a war fought far away. A mundane setting becomes confined and claustrophobic. When Scorsese cuts from close-up to close-up of the man slicing himself and bleeding from a dozen self-inflicted wounds, we have no space to draw back and escape. Finally, the camera switches from close-ups to a frontal medium shot looking out of the mirror at the young man as he deliberately and calmly slits his throat: he is us. The sink and tile floor, once pure, are now covered in blood. His lack of emotion is now deeply disturbing, signaling perhaps our willful complicity in violence in Vietnam rather than ignorance or innocence.

The Big Shave

So too the charm of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics in the 1930s jazz standard “I Can’t Get Started” take on a new meaning in the context of the 1960s and American intervention in Vietnam – “I’ve flown around the world in a plane / I’ve settled revolutions in Spain.” The beauty of Berigan’s virtuoso trumpet work and the lost innocence of Gershwin’s lyrics stand in stark counterpoint to the tragedy of Vietnam.

It is in this foreboding imagining of what is to come – self-destructive barbarism – that The Big Shave gives us a decisive historical narrative. In Scorsese’s hands, the moment of American intervention in Vietnam becomes an inescapable future in which the violence we seek to do overseas will come home with an awful vengeance. The Big Shave is a compressed but poignant work of historical analysis.

[1]Aubry Anne D’Arminio. Accessed 21 Mar 2013.


[3]Ed Howard. Accessed 21 Mar 2013. See also the comments of Walter C. Metz in “Adapting Dachau: Intertextuality and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island,” in The Adaptation of History: Essays on Ways of Telling the Past, eds. Laurence Raw and Defne Ersin Tutan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013), 49-50.

[4]James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: Atlantic Monthy Press, 1986).