Director Shohei Imamura's (The Ballad of Narayama, Black Rain) incendiary satire of Japan's colonial expansion across the southern seas in the early decades of the 20th century is based on the autobiography of Iheiji Muraoka, a notorious sex-trafficker and fervent patriot who set up a string of brothels across Southeast Asia.
After washing up, penniless and destitute in Hong Kong in 1901, Iheiji Muraoka (Ken Ogata, The Ballad of Narayama) assimilates straight away into the local Japanese expatriate community, and is soon set up in the city as an apprentice barber. The Japanese consul has higher goals for him in mind, however, and he finds himself dispatched on a spying mission to investigate Russian military activity in Manchuria. After discovering an enclave of young Japanese women being held as prostitutes, Iheiji spots an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the Emperor and make a quick buck in the process, partnering with his former sweetheart Shiho (Mitsuko Baisho, The Eel) and rehabilitating a group of ex-convicts to build an enterprise that stretches to Malaysia and the Philippines.
Imamura's epic rise-and-fall tale of this mythic adventurer, entrepreneur, and sex-trafficker across several decades builds upon his previous depictions of prostitutes and panderers in such works as The Insect Woman and his documentary Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute to present a ribald counterpart to official history, in which the flag follows the flesh.
Shohei Imamura’s Zegen receives a Blu-ray edition from Arrow Academy, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the second dual-layer available exclusively in their box set, Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura.
I had never heard of this film prior to this set’s release (I had seen the other two, The Ballad of Narayama and Black Rain) and upon finding there had never been any other English-friendly home video releases for the film (and Rayns confirms in the included interview this Arrow edition is the first one he is aware of) my expectations were a little low for how this would turn out, especially after the waxy looking Ballad of Narayama. Incredibly the presentation for this film ends up being the best looking one in the set, with a cleaner, and far more film-like look in comparison to the previous film. The film is pretty grainy and the level varies throughout, but it’s all rendered very well, looking clean and natural, leading to a sharp overall image with a stunning amount of detail, despite the presentation being sourced from an interpositive instread of a negative. Colours are also very good, with some incredible looking reds and greens, all rendered cleanly themselves. Blacks are generally good; a few darker indoor shots can be a bit murky or crush out shadows (probably inherent to the source) but I was pleased with them overall.
There’s a little bit of damage, and the opening dose come off a little rough in look when compared to the rest of the film, but there isn’t anything significant here, suggesting that, despite being a lesser known (and apparently lesser respected) Imamura film, the source print has been well taken care of.
In the end, this presentation ended up being a pleasant surprise after having lowered my expectations following Narayama; it looks shockingly good. But once I looked at the restoration notes it became clear why this one looks significantly better: Zegen's restoration is the sole one of in the set to be performed exclusively by Arrow (in 2K), the others performed by Toei. Arrow has put their usual care into it and it's clearly paid off.
Presented in DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono, the soundtrack is serviceable enough. Voices can sound a bit flat, and it can also sound like the music is striving to be more dynamic than it actually is, but everything ultimately comes off sounding clean and clear, no heavy damage or distortion present.
Arrow has brought in Japanese cinema experts Tony Rayns and Jasper Sharp to contribute new material around each film in this box set, Rayns providing a new 41-minute interview and Sharp providing a new audio commentary for Zegen. Both men cover just how different this film is from Imamura’s other work, at least his later ones, and explain why it not only had limited appeal outside of Japan (where the film was snubbed by various festivals and awards), but also limited appeal in Japan. It ended up being a huge bomb, severing Imamura’s relationship with Toei (he would have to independently finance his next film, Black Rain, which appears to have been then distributed by Toei).
It is an odd film, and as both Rayns and Sharp sort of suggest, watching it more along the lines of a comedy (complete with crude humour) and you can get along with its vibe.
For his track, Sharp gets more into comparing the film and its themes with Imamura’s other films, explaining how the film doesn’t really stick out all that much when compared to the rest of his filmography, bringing up The Insect Woman a number of times throughout the track. This also leads him to talk about the Japanese “Pink Films” before also talking about the actual man the film is based on, Iheiji Muraoka. The biography aspect even leads Sharp to talk about the wave of documentary (or, “theatrical documentary”) films that were coming out from Japan, like The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (which I will plug here has a region free Blu-ray from Second Run in the UK), with mention of Imamura’s own A Man Vanishes.
Rayns focuses more on the real story and the production of the film, first explaining the background to Muraoka’s autobiography (which went unpublished for a few decades before getting a release) and then talks about Muraoka’s “patriotic motivations,” the man thinking that everything he was doing (setting up franchises for brothels) was in service to his country (the money and “getting laid” a lot were purely bonuses). Rayns also explains better why the film failed when it came to attracting the western arthouse crowds.
The disc ends up having the least number of supplements of all of the titles in the set—a small image gallery being the only other extra—but again I’m amazed the film is actually getting anything at all, and the material that has been included is what I would call essential; I think Rayns and Sharp both help put the film into better perspective.
The least stacked of the titles in the set in relation to supplemental material, but it's excellent, Rayns’ and Sharp’s contributions helping one better appreciate the film. The disc also sports an impressive looking presentation.