Profound Desires of the Gods

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)

Profound Desires of the Gods first published by Little White Lies

“The islanders aren’t particularly clever, so they get their stories and reality all mixed up. It just shows how simple and pure they are.”

This is what Kariya (Kazuo Kitamura) says of his one-time Okinawan hosts near the end of Profound Desires of the Gods. Yet while director/co-writer Shohei Imamura‘s down-and-dirty aesthetic (typically designated ‘messy’) could hardly be accused of similar simplicity and purity, the film itself certainly boasts an analogous confusion of fiction and reality. For although drawn from an ancient creation myth, and set on an imaginary island named Kurage, Profound Desires of the Gods painstakingly documents the distinctive language, culture, pantheistic rituals, and flora and fauna of the Okinawa prefecture – as well as including the sound of US warplanes on their way to the Vietnam conflict, and other signs of intruding history and encroaching modernity. 

Reality finds its place in Imamura’s fiction in other ways too. If the film’s story follows Kariya, a visiting engineer from the mainland, as he is seduced away from his appointed task (building a water supply for the new sugar cane factory) by the sensuality of his surroundings, then that only reflects the experiences of Imamura himself in making the film. For the wayward auteur also went native during his sojourn on Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island, falling so in love with his environs that he stretched what was supposed to be a six-month location shoot into a full year and a half of indulgence for himself (and irritation for his marooned cast). “When did I come here?”, Kariya is heard wondering, “On the one hand, it seems like only yesterday. On the other hand, it seems like a long time ago.” With these words he is apparently speaking as much for his director as for himself – and perhaps also for the film’s viewers, who can lose themselves in its leisurely three-hour duration. Here the sense of timelessness is almost tangible.   

Kariya, the champion of science, reason, progress and self-restraint, will see his every value called into question by an extended entanglement with ‘the oldest family on the island’. Impulsive and uninhibited, but also dutiful and devout, the Futoris are regarded both as ‘beasts’ for their incestuous ways, and as divine for their shamanic skills – but certainly not as human. Nor are they the only ones on the island with a contradictory nature. Head man/factory manager Ryu (Yoshi Kato) must negotiate his clashing allegiances to village tradition and economic development, and seems to be in bed as much with the Futoris as with his mainland masters. Kariya himself is divided by a bigamous devotion to both an adulterous wife back home in Tokyo, and to the passionate, inbred Toriko Futori (Kazuko Okiyama) on Kurage. Toriko’s brother Kametaro (Choichiro Kawarazaki) is stuck between his desire to get off the island and his inability, ultimately, to stay away for long. And the young cane farmers who serve as the film’s singing-and-dancing chorus seem torn by their continuing adherence to a set of beliefs and mores that they increasingly view as mere ‘superstition’.     

Another member of the Futori clan, Nekichi (Rentaro Mikuni), is bound in chains and has spent the last 20 years digging a massive pit in the hope of dislodging and burying a massive rock deposited by a tsunami in the sacred rice paddies above. It is never entirely clear whether he performs this Sisyphean task as an act of devotion to the gods, or as a punishment for various sexual transgressions, or as a penalty for poaching fish, or in voluntary fulfilment of a promise made to an old war comrade, or just because he likes it – at different points in the film, after all, each and every one of these explanations is offered for Nekichi’s endless labours. More important is the way that these different stories are shown to coexist – much as, by the end of the film, the island’s atavistic myths remain very much alive and a part of the landscape even as Kurage lurches forward (or is it backward?) into the twentieth century.   

    Co-written, like Imamura’s previous The Insect Woman (1963) and Murderous Instincts (1964) with the surrealist Keiji Hasebe, Profound Desires of the Gods offers a heady chance encounter between the primordial and the contemporary, the mythic and the historical, the religious and the rational, the natural and the technological. It is an allegory for Japan’s post-war Westernisation, and an elegy for a traditional way of life that has long passed, yet keeps renewing itself in paradoxical ways.   

Epic in scale and tragic in theme, Profound Desires of the Gods was Imamura’s first film to have been made in colour, but the difficulty and expense of the shoot coupled with a tepid response from the Japanese cinema-going public of the time also made it the last theatrical feature that Imamura would direct until Vengeance Is Mine (1979) over a decade later. Still, it is a remarkable achievement – an unruly anthropological oddity full of primitive longings, exploitative politics, and divine mysteries.   

strap: Shohei Imamura’s unruly anthropological oddity overflows with primitive longings, exploitative politics and divine mysteries. 

© Anton Bitel