The story behind this film is sourced from a real woman Imamura met when drinking in what was known as a 'white district' – where prostitution was a way to top up a salary earned as a shop assistant or a maid. Imamura spent three days meeting this woman in a park (he was penniless and didn't have an office) recording her life story, and was particularly intrigued by her relationship with her step-father, which was very close, somewhat physical, although perhaps not actually sexual. The film depicts the way he would suckle at his adopted daughter's breasts – a symbol for an infantile Japanese masculinity cowering underneath tough cynical women fighting for their survival.
The film begins with a shot of an ant battling up a clump of sand, and ends with our heroine Tome struggling up a hill to visit her daughter. She is symbolically associated with the tenacity and the vulnerability of an insect. Tome is by no means the saint that appears in films by Ozu and Mizoguchi – she learns exploitation at the hands of a madam in the city, and becomes a vicious madam in turn. But although Imamura shows men to be universal cowards and idiots, they remain the ultimate expropriators. The most terrifying scene is the attempted seduction of Tome's daughter Nobuko by the man who seduced her mother. Unlike Tome, Nobuko manages to escape his clutches and the lure of the city, and returns to a purer rural farming life.
Imamura shot everything on location – none of Mizoguchi's elaborate sets for him. He also breaks up the history of this insect woman into fragments – presenting episodes of her life grouped by freeze-frames and voiceover. He also admits to being more interested in physical performances, rather than a deep investigation into the inner psychologies of his characters. The camera captures the effect of scrabbling about on the earth, bodies being affected by the environment, slowly eroding with time and effort. The episodic nature of the film reminded me of more recent attempts to map out a complete personality with a camera – Boyhood and The Life of Adèle. Both of those documentary-like fiction films owe something to Imamura.