Let's get this out of the way right away, just so we can bounce back from the vulgar and move forward into a more refined realm of cinephilic discourse: Holy s**t. Yes, holy s**t. As in, holy s**t, this Blu-ray looks unbelievably great. As in, holy s**t, how is it that this incredible Imamura film, a truly quintessential work, has been so little seen. And a few more identical exclamations followed by big statements and puzzled questions, but you get the idea, and now we may fan ourselves a bit and settle in to the more civilized mode of discourse that is appropriate to The Daily Notebook.
Let's get into what there is to get so excited about in a bit more detail. After all, it's not as if this Eureka!/Masters of Cinema exclusive-to-Blu-ray release is a multi-disc, supplement-laden extravaganza. Yes, it features a typically cogent and smart video introduction from scholar and critic Tony Rayns, a typically acute essay by same in a typically excellent accompanying booklet (which also features writings by and an interview with Imamura), and the film's theatrical trailer, also presented in a high-def format, but this isn't a super-production replete with all kinds of extra goodies in the mode of Criterion's latest iteration of Visconti's The Leopard (whose extras are, mostly, holdovers from the company's standard-def version of the picture) or Warner's A Star Is Born (the supplemental disc of which is a standard-def DVD).
The back cover of the disc announces a "spectacular new 1080p HD encode in the film's original aspect ratio." The Eureka!/Masters of Cinema folk are not known for blowing their horn in just such a way, but the first reason to get inordinately excited about this disc is the, yes, spectacular quality of its video. A quality that I hope is at least partially evident in these photographs I took, directly from the screen of my own 50-inch plasma display. Every shot in Imamura's film (which was lensed by Masao Tochizawa) is a feast of often-golden light. The film is set on the sun-drenched fictional island of Kurage (actually Okinawa, of which the fictional construct is merely a thinly disguised version), and the light here functions as a character, as does the water and all the other natural elements that surround the characters.
The film's narrative is nearly three hours of quintessentially Imamurian insanity, wryness, wisdom and acute anthropological observation. Imagine a cross between God's Little Acre, Local Hero, and the opening scorpion fight of L'âge d'or, then filter it through Imamura's particular aesthetic/consciousness, wherein tragedy walks hand-in-hand with farce, always, and a perpetually bemused cynicism finds no contradiction in an ever-abundant sense of wonder at the world both natural and unnatural. The narrative is both sprawling and intimate; it's the story of a revered/feared/despised old family of eccentrics on the island, and its interactions with a naive engineer from Tokyo assigned by corporate interests to build a new well there. Hilarious, ravishing, deranged, and deranging, the picture was a spectacular flop on its initial 1968 theatrical release in Japan, and has since become one of the most legendary, and least-seen, films in the Imamura oeuvre. And this changes that.
This is an intractable Region-B coded disc, and thus a multi-region Blu-ray player is required for its viewing in America. One is seeing borders melting with respect to Blu-ray quite a bit recently; domestic versions of previously Region-B only releases such as The Red Shoes and Red Desert have cropped up only a few weeks apart from each other. Those were to be expected, of course; there's quite a bit more obscure fare (much of it released via BFI, including its Jane Arden/Jack Bond films) that won't find U.S. distribution homes. Still, one sometimes wonders whether one's investment in a multi-region Blu-ray player was "worth it." Something like this makes the answer "Hell, yes," resound even louder than it would given other compelling evidence.