"If it isn't land tilted up, let me die the death of the unrighteous," says Twain's Tumble Bug; Shohei Imamura reflects the sagacious jest in a fierce cinematic expression. The camera opens microscopically on a stumbling beetle, the heroine is herself a larvae in the dead of winter, 1918. As a young woman (Sachiko Hidari) during the war, she is bartered off as a bride but returns to the factory a unionist rouser, her fondest memory has her childlike stepfather (Kazuo Kitamura) sucking on an oozing boil on her thigh. People are united by their fluids in rural Japan, it's a brutal place for women ("Let it live or take it back," the midwife ponders upon realizing that Hidari has just given birth to a baby girl). Tokyo in the Fifties is harsher yet -- insectoid buzz is replaced by airplane whooshes, Hidari learns about "the sin of carnal desire" yet readily goes from temple to brothel, where she passes herself off as virginal with the aid of a little blood. City life hardens her, but she learns fast: "I am just soothing the pain of the world," the brothel madam rationalizes at her vanity table, so the heroine sees her cue and gets herself a patron, takes over the business, and prospers scratchily into the increasingly westernized '60s. Impulsive female vigor is Imamura's theme (the divinity cherished by peasants but discarded by city dwellers is an ample belle), his filmmaking is ferocity itself -- the Ozu frames are featured only to be frozen and smudged, it's no accident more than one scene pivots on scalding pots. Hidari is finally supplanted by her own daughter (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and, having passed from ant to grasshopper to queen bee, returns to the land a complaining roach, an unbowed survivor tripping on a roadside rock (cf. Kitano's Zatoichi). With Seizaburo Kawazu, Masumi Harukawa, Hiroyuki Nagato, and Sumie Sakaki. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce