The distinguished Japanese director Shohei Imamura who died in 2006 had a long and interesting career. He won the Golden Palm at Cannes on two occasions (for the remake of "The Ballad of Narayama" in 1983 and for "The Eel" in 1997). He was also in the running for that award with "Warm Water under a Red Bridge" (2001), "Black Rain" (1989) -- not the Ridley Scott/Michael Douglas film of the same title in the same year, and "Zegen" (1987) -- a Japanese version of Don Quixote. In addition he is also responsible for classics of Japanese cinema like "Vengeance is Mine" (1979) and "The Insect Woman" (1963).
It is therefore remarkable that the amazing film under review here is not even listed in the majority of my many film guides and has never surfaced on DVD, although I understand that a Blu-ray copy will be available here soon. Also known as "Legends from a Southern Island", this is a very long (nearly three hours), incredibly beautifully photographed, and fascinating study of a backwater society isolated from the modern world and seeped in its own brand of primitive religion and superstition. The residents of the secluded island of Kurage are untouched by organised religion and believe in their own gods to determine their behaviour. Apart from those above, their gods also include their economic masters from abroad who control the local industry, such as it is. When the sugar cane crop is threatened by drought, a company engineer arrives, but he is soon sucked into the native indolent lifestyle, especially when he becomes enamoured of a wild local lass who is more than two sandwiches short of a picnic.
She is the somewhat simple nympho daughter of a family of outcasts who are well into incest and who have alienated the other islanders with their outlandish behaviour. One son is kept chained by the ankle to prevent his dynamiting for fish and to keep him digging away in a pit, attempting to dislodge a huge boulder that a tidal wave has deposited on the family's (and the Gods') rice paddy. He is also in love with his sister who is considered a powerful shaman and who has been taken as a mistress by a local bigwig. The family's tyrannical and aging grandfather is also the father of at least one of his grandchildren, making the family's structure and superstitions something of a mystery difficult to unravel, let alone to comprehend.
All of this is played out against some of the most beautiful nature photography I have ever seen, with unforgettable images of sea creatures, water, and sky. With their livelihoods threatened and perpetually punishing weather, the island inhabitants regress into a form of primitive madness and crowd hysteria. When the outcast siblings attempt to escape to find a new life together on a neighbouring isolated island, they are chased by boatloads of screaming, mask-wearing pursuers determined to punish them. The chase and the lovers' ultimate fates produce some indelible images for the blinking, unbelieving viewer.
The film ends a few years on when this 'colourful' environment with its 'quaint' natives has been turned into a tourist attraction for the mainlanders. They come to gawk at the island's landmarks and are treated to kitschy versions of the old legends. Nobody seems to miss or regret a way of life long forsaken, celebrated now only in the songs of an ancient and crippled minstrel.