Sachiko Hidari as Tome in Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman (1963).
The film starts with an insect climbing a muddy hill, struggling to get to the top. Tome Matsuki is a woman born in the countryside of Japan in 1918 and she spends her youth on a farm together with her somewhat slow father, Chuji, who she may or may not have an incestuous relationship with. The "may not" comes from her mother being less than faithful to Chuji and not really knowing who Tome's biological father is.
The film jumps to when Tome is in her late teens/early 20s and having had a baby of her own and a failed relationship behind her she moves to the big city, leaving her father and baby, to work as a housemaid at the home of a woman named Midori who has a child with an American GI. After Tome inadvertantly causes the death of the child she ends up in a religious meeting where she meets the madam of an inn that is also a front for a prostitution business run by the madam. Up to the point when Tome is talked into prostituting herself, she has been adapting herself to situations but without any particular motives except survival, she now becomes an opportunist, taking the first chance she gets to rat out the madam to the police and take over the business herself.
Things are going well so far for Tome but just as she betrayed her boss, the women working for Tome starts taking customers on the side and ultimately she is betrayed in the same way. As if that's not enough, Tome's daughter, Nobuko now grown up, arrives to borrow money and manages to not only get the money but to steal away and get pregnant by Tome's lover and benefactor since many years, Karasawa. In the end, Nobuko returns to the country to have the baby together with her fiancé who knows nothing of Nobuko's affair in the city. Karasawa, desperate to get Nobuko and his money back, sends Tome to the farm to retrieve her. And so the film ends with Tome back in the country, climbing a muddy hill, struggling to get to the top, once again having adapted to new circumstances to get by.
As the translation of the original title, Entomological Chronicle of Japan, suggests, The Insect Woman is more of a study of human behaviour, juxtaposed with that of the crawling insect at the beginning of the film, than a melodrama. At no point in the film, from when she has grown up, do you really feel for Tome, at times her actions are even detestable. The detachment comes from the style of the filmmaking and the way the story is being told.
Spanning over several decades, from around 1918 until the 1960s and following the same subject with clips of historical events to show the societal changes around her which she and everyone else has to adapt to, the eco. This along with freeze frames at both crucial and totally random feeling moments in Tome's life where she, through voice over, and the viewer is able to reflect on she has become.I also felt that with Tome so strongly representing adaptability, being so focused on survival and success, changing with the times and always adapting to surroundings, it removes some of her identity and personality and adds to the detachment of me as a viewer, making me feel more like an observer than someone emotionally involved with what's happening on the screen.
The detachment is both a weakness and a strength for the film, sometimes it feels like a chore following a person that you don't really care about, but at the same time it doesn't make the film any less interesting, but it's not what I would call entertainment. I remember having something of the same feeling while watching Imamura's The Pornographers (1966), whose original title translates to An Introduction to Anthropology. The result of The Insect Woman, Tome returning home climbing the hill just like the insect at the beginning having been replaced by a younger version of herself seems clear enough, but isn't that what happens to all of us in the end? Is it as simple as that no matter how much society changes, man will toil away in the same manner to get ahead not learning from our mistakes, just following our most basic needs.
I don't know if I'd really call Tome a strong person either, strong willed maybe, but she constantly makes the wrong decisions and even when it seems like she might be headed for some success, life remains a struggle for her. She never manages to truly become independent as in the end, she's relying on men to help her with money, men who measure a woman's worth only in how much money she can bring in working for them and who doesn't even care if she is faithful as long as they get what they want. The answer to what it all might be about sickens, "natural order". But as Imamura shows, women struggling are survivors, adaptable to any situation, and outlive their men.