Beginning with the Lumiere brothers” aptly titled short film Train Pulling Into a Station (1895), the steel locomotive has been a powerful image in the mythology of cinema. It can be a symbol of modernity barreling through the rugged terrain of the American West, the site where two lovers first catch sight of each other, or a sinister place where murders are planned and executed. Even after a century’s worth of moving images and countless cinematic reinventions the eponymously named Iron Horse still lingers on in film and TV, even if only in the background, and has become a visual metaphor for progress, perseverance, and the start of countless journeys. Thus it is only appropriate that Endless Desire, his third directorial feature, Shohei Imamura opens with a shot of rail tires speeding through the rugged terrain of postwar Japan. The gang of loosely associated crooks, killers and sycophants riding on that train are, just like the locomotive that opens Imamura’s film, driven by a narrow purpose even as the circumscribed course that they’re on will eventually lead to nothing but ruin as our five protagonists’ greed derail any hope for a fate other than death.
Shot and released in 1958, Endless Desire was an attempt by Imamura to bank on his initial successes. The filmmaker himself proposed an idea for a film about a man who keeps having flashbacks to a passionate love affair with a native girl on a deserted island (a story that would later become the premise of his 1968 film The Profound Desire of the Gods). However, Nikkatsu, his home studio, balked at the idea and pushed him to direct a commercial film starring pop singer Frank Nagai instead. Neither party wanted to budge, the first of many stalemates in Imamura’s career. This one was only to be finally broken when Nikkatsu assigned him the task of directing Endless Desire. Although labeled by many who’ve seen the picture as “minor Imamura”, the film has quite the illustrious pedigree. With a production nurtured and developed by producer Kano Otsuka, a man who helped cultivate many young talents in the “Nikkatsu New Wave”, an original story adapted from a novel by Shinji Fujiwara, a writer Imamura also adapted in his 1964 masterpiece Intentions of Murder, and a cast of the very best character actors from Daiei and Nikkatsu’s stable, Endless Desire is a darkly comic heist film in the vein of British black comedies like Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955).
Set ten years after Japan’s surrender, this early Imamura flick satirizes a wild era of rapid economic growth when corporate cartels called keiretsu held sway and behind every great fortune was an equally greater crime. Though, as per Imamura’s style, he doesn’t place his characters in a corporate milieu, like Daiei director Yasuzo Masumura does in classics like Giants and Toys (1958) or The Black Test Car (1962), but instead uses the slums of the Shinmachi Shopping District, a domestic no-man’s land with poor and rich alike crammed together, as the backdrop for his story. And, like most of the memorable characters in Imamura’s oeuvre, the five “greedy pigs” in Endless Desire are reduced to the level of sub-human beasts as they dig and claw their way through dirt, mud, and clay to reach their intended goal, an oil drum stuffed to the brim with morphine. Although even before the digging starts, each of the five crooks already exhibits animal-like traits, i.e. the “fake teacher” Ryoji’s (Shoichi Ozawa) open-mouthed food chewing resembling that of a cow chomping on some cud, the pig-like facial features of Onuma, played by Taiji Tonoyama, and the Machiavellian seductress Shima Hashimoto (Misako Watanabe) who moves like a peacock as she attracts men with her flashy kimonos and swaying hips.
Whereas the conventional crime film would clearly delineate between the criminals and the innocent law-abiding citizens, Imamura, reputed for his astute observations of human behavior would never allow such simplified generalizations. Thus, Imamura lays some of his cruelest observations about humankind on the inhabitants of the commercial slum, casting them as lewd, greedy, irrational beings. In fact the overlying theme that best sums up Imamura’s entire filmography is that man is no better than the bugs or beasts that also roam the planet, with the only difference being that humans are just far more neurotic. For Imamura, the veneer of sophistication that people, be they Westerners or Japanese, cling onto online casino as proof of their superiority, represented by the tall monuments we erect or the technology we use to tame nature, is but an illusion. Thus, unlike later representations of slum life such as those found in Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh (1964) or the yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku, the residents of the Shinmachi district, although divorced from the modern urban comforts of contemporary Japan, are relatively happy and exude a natural earthiness as they go about their daily routines. As countless cinema scholars have stated, the ones that survive and thrive in an Imamura film are not the ones who repress their natural instinctual drives or abandon everything to indulge in their fantasies, but instead are those who subscribe to a more pragmatic philosophy and, as the lecherous old man Taki states in Endless Desire, “hone their greed” to a point where they can satisfy their desires but never be ruled by them.
The only two inhabitants in the crowded Shinmachi district that could be considered innocents are the beautiful but stubborn Ryuko (Hitomi Nozoe, having a busy year starring in at least ten films in 1958, including Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys) and sweet but dim-witted Satoru, played by Imamura regular Hiroyuki Nagato. Although their romance and the characters themselves were most likely tacked on to Imamura’s film as a way to capitalize on Japan’s youth market, it’s interesting to note that the role of Ryuko is a mix of pretty girl ingenue and Imamuran heroine: smart, self-sufficient and though far more chaste than Imamura’s later female protagonists, one would never mistake her for being sexually naive. In fact, it is not a leap to see a link between Ryuko and the fierce but emotionally fragile barmaid-turned-prostitute Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) in Shohei Imamura’s breakthrough film Pigs and Battleships (1961), especially in both films” endings as each heroine seemingly walks away from slum life and their feckless boyfriends, in each played by Nagato, to begin life anew. Standing in stark contrast to that image of female empowerment is the duplicitous Shima, who is a more fully formed Imamuran heroine in that she looks and behaves like a grotesque vulgar monster, sort of an evil twin to the middle-aged sexual predator commonly known as a cougar. This description is especially apt as she selfishly manipulates men to do her bidding and then disposes them when they are no longer useful to her. As Donald Richie stated in a 2009 interview with Tom Luddy:
“The women in Ozu are like real women. The women in Mizoguchi are like everybody’s idea of what a truly virtuous woman would do in putting up with all of the awful things that men do to her. So if the prerequisite is that men do awful things first in order for the woman to be of noble character and to behave like the wife at the end of Ugetsu (1953)…Naruse of course has a much darker view of women than this, which is they are always hitting the wall and they’re determined and Takamine Hideko says “I’m gonna go through with this” and she can’t cuz’ the wall slams into her. And so this is another romanticized view of what awful things Japanese life does to women but with Imamura it’s what awful things women do to Japanese life. These are women who are absolutely gonna go get what they want like in Insect Woman (Nippon Konchuki, 1963)…”
Beyond the thematic content in Endless Desire, it’s interesting note that, visually, the film is just as unique as Imamura’s later films. Working for the first time with future longtime collaborator Masahisa Imeda, the film’s chiaroscuro lighting and noir atmosphere would have made even John Alton proud. Although Imamura is not primarily known for having a specific cinematic style like Ozu, whom Imamura worked under as an assistant and would later rebel against, there are trademark visual motifs that define the look of a typical messy, dirty, sweaty Imamura film: off-kilter framing, odd angles, and casually blending documentary and magic realist elements. Yet unlike those later films, Endless Desire is very clearly a studio-bound picture whose polished presentation couldn’t have been accomplished without Kimihiko Nakamura, who recently died and was responsible for the art direction in Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi no Hitomi, 1954) as well as many of Imamura’s early work. With the assistance of these two men, the animal imagery that is so prominent in later pictures like Pigs and Battleships, Profound Desire of the Gods, and The Eel (1997) is present even in Imamura’s third directorial feature. Imeda turns the cinematic frame into the makeshift screen of an ant farm and Nakamura horizontally divides the space, with the top portion being the vibrant noisy location of the slum with the dark, dank, literal underworld of Shima and her associates underneath. This makes the Shinmachi slum, both above and below ground, a microcosm of human existence itself.
Though ignored in the West (its IMDB listing has incorrect cast and crew information), Endless Desire deserves far more attention than it has gotten. The barrel of morphine that Imamura’s protagonists are after is merely the MacGuffin in the story. Although adhering to the structure of a heist film, all of that is just an excuse to explore the innate greed and savagery that people are capable of. Made during a time when Japan was finally pulling itself out of the hardscrabble financially desperate era of the Occupation, this film depicts how, in this period of prosperity, many turned into rapacious pigs willing to forfeit their humanity as they dug through the literal as well as moral dirt looking for “golden” truffles. A depiction that Imamura delivers with his usual sense of humor and cosmic justice.