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Japanese director Shôhei Imamura may be best known for his cold and serious films, but over the course of his career he also tackled comedy, albeit in a very dark manner. One of his later films, Zegen tells the reality-based story of Iheiji Muraoka (Ken Ogata), a poor Japanese man who immigrates to Hong Kong at the turn of the 20th century to seek work in order to slowly regain the past glory of his family. Making a living as a barber at first, Muraoka is soon recruited to work as a spy against the Russians and develops an extremely strong sense of patriotism after to the example of his commander, Captain Uehara (Hiroyuki Konishi). After semi-accidentally becoming a human trafficker, he gets the idea of setting up brothels for the benefit of the Emperor, eventually expanding his businesses across South-East Asia. The changing political climate keeps causing troubles for his ventures, however.
Imamura tells the tale of the "Japanese Dream" of booming pre-war economics through exaggeration and satire: Muraoka's obsessive attempts of honouring his country are seen as fussy and comical and the constant presence of giggling prostitutes also strengthens the sense of laughableness that surrounds Imamura's trusted actor Ken Ogata in the lead role. On the other hand, the relationship of Iheiji's sensible lover Shiho (Mitsuko Baisho), also a prostitute, and a rivaling pimp Wang (Chun Hsiung Ko) brings a feel of sadness in the story, as does the general idea of girls leaving their homes or being kidnapped to work as prostitutes overseas, even if the characters are too keen on their daily bumblings to ever realize it. The satirical aspects become perhaps the most obvious during the final 15 minutes or so, when Muraoka has finally lost his grip on reality in the pressures of honour. At this point, he has moved from laughable to pathetic Imamura's commentary on economy and patriotism replacing common sense is not left unclear.
True to his style, Imamura doesn't do much to cover up the omnipresent sexuality and casual nudity that defines the lives of the women in the brothels. The yellowish hues of many interior scenes create a mood of crampedness that is contrasted by beautiful outdoor shots of things like blizzards, sunsets or fog during Muraoka's trips outside his brothels. Besides the well-thought visuals, the music by Shinichirô Ikebe fits in the mood too, although used rather sparingly.
Even though the loud style of acting takes some time to get used to and the story feels a tad too long at over two hours, in the end I think the colourful performances and the period piece atmosphere are worth seeing for friends of Japanese cinema. Since the theme of uncontrollable urge for entrepreneurship is still very relevant too, Zegen can be recommended to those interested in Imamura's development as a director, even though personally I still prefer the more intimate Unholy Desire (1964), his cruel but excellent examination of emotional abuse in relationships.
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