If you're someone to whom Japanese cinema means Akira Kurosawa movies and the Godzilla saga, The Profound Desire Of The Gods will shock and disturb you. Neither an epic samurai drama nor a rubber dinosaur movie, Shohei Imamura's film (variously known as Deep Desire Of The Gods, Kuragejima: Legends From A Southern Island) is an odd tale incorporating pagan sacrifice, incest and the mentally handicapped.
Kariya (Imamura's actor of choice Kitamura) is an engineer whose work takes him from sophisticated Tokyo to a remote island. Assigned with digging a well to provide water for a local sugar mill, Kariya makes the acquaintance of the Futori family. A tragically inbred bunch, the Futori clan includes the particularly unfortunate Nekichi (Mikuni), who spends his days chained up in a pit that he is digging to appease the gods after violating local customs.
If that wasn't bad enough, Nekichi also has the misfortune to be in love with his sister Uma (Matsui) - a priestess at the local shrine that is the source of the only clean water in the village - but she only has eyes for sugar mill manager Ryu (Kato). It all seems pretty odd to newcomer Kariya, but it seems odder still when the head of the family Futori presses him to marry his retarded daughter Toriko (Okiyama).
Unpleasant as all of this sounds, it's worth pointing out that Imamura's intention was to make the most daring, grotesque movie imaginable. Part of the Japanese New Wave, Imamura wanted to rebel against the polite cinema of Yasujiro Ozu. To this end, he made films not about the bourgeoisie - who are usually lionised in Japanese movies - but about the working classes. And while other directors set out not to offend, Imamura seemed to believe that the more outrageous the subject, the better.
This isn't to suggest that The Profound Desire Of The Gods is simply an exercise in shock cinema. Quite the opposite, this is an extraordinary film that's often epic and beautiful in spite of its small scale and subject matter. Superbly performed (Kazuo Kitamura and Choichiro Kawarazaki are particularly good), the film also boasts a magnificent score by Toshiro Mayuzumi, arguably Japan's greatest soundtrack composer.
Perhaps best known to Western audiences for directing the Japanese episode of 9'09''01 - September 11, it's a shame Imamura isn't as internationally recognised as, say, Akira Kurosawa. He's certainly a very gifted filmmaker, albeit one with an incredibly strong stomach. But just as Kurosawa shaped world cinema, so Imamura also has his fair share of admirers and imitators. Indeed, you only need to look at the excesses of Ichi The Killer and the Dead Or Alive trilogy to realise that Takashi Miike must be a really big fan of The Profound Desire Of The Gods.