Millions endlessly serving a collective whose character is defined by individuals endlessly seeking to sate selfish, physical needs. Are they insects or people? Shohei Imamura's 1963 film is called The Insect Woman in the west but the original title, Nippon konchuki, にっぽん昆虫記, leaves sex out of it, the literal translation being something like "insect as a symbol for Japan." Japan is spelled にっぽん instead of the normal 日本 to emphasise the old fashioned pronunciation "Nippon" instead of "Nihon". The film is a relentlessly brutal account of a woman's life from birth to old age in which she's continually reminded that human society is comprised of people taking advantage of one another.
The film begins in 1913 with her father (Kazuo Kitamura) registering her birth at a government office where employees laugh at him for actually believing the child is his when his wife gave birth only two months after their marriage. The father, Chuji, is a poor tenant farmer in an agricultural system that was still essentially feudal--he and the other farmers work the land for a landlord who commands an authority not unlike a medieval baron. When the landlord expresses the desire to essentially take Chuji's daughter, Tome (Sachiko Hidari), as a second wife, most of the cynical farmers think Chuji and Tome are crazy for trying to refuse. But Chuji and Tome have an unusual relationship.
Here Chuji squeezes and sucks a blister on Tome's thigh. She writhes on the floor in a manner resembling sexual excitement--she's been sleeping with her father since was a child. "Does that mean we're married?" she asks him when she's a little girl and he laughs and tells her it does. It's not explicitly clear if the two actually have sex. Oddly, theirs is perhaps the most loving relationship in the film. They seem at least to be emotionally honest with each other unlike every other relationship Tome has in the film as we follow her through decades living in Tokyo.
She falls for a guy she works with at a textile mill. He's a communist and reads aloud communist propaganda to the workers while they're at the looms but they all gossip and the machines are too noisy, drowning him out completely, so Tome shuts off the machines. The guy shyly asks why she did that and she says it's the only way they'll hear him. He awkwardly reads a few lines of the propaganda before turning the machines back on--there we see the real depths of his ideological commitment. It's a falseness in his personality that Tome soon learns extends to his commitment to her.
It's a pattern that manifests in the government, too, as the end of World War II means the end of the faith Japan's people were taught to have in the emperor. A war in Korea that follows soon after is a reminder the Americans aren't what they say they are, either. "I thought the Americans were supposed to be peaceful," says Tome as she and some friends watch war planes fly past above.
Eventually, Tome finds herself working at a brothel where in one striking scene three women, in order to please a client who wants a virgin, take some blood out of the refrigerator to warm it. One woman accidentally boils it and ruins it but shrugs and bares her arm to draw fresh blood remarking how silly men are for wanting virgins anyway.
When prostitution is made illegal in 1956, and the madam of Tome's brothel goes to prison, Tome quickly assumes the leadership role, using her skills as a war time union leader to reorganise the women into a call girl network not unlike the ones still operating in Japan to-day. Now in a position of authority, Tome soon rooks the women far worse than their previous madam ever did but most of the money she makes goes to her husband, Karasawa (Seizaburo Kawazu). She calls him "Father". Of course he takes advantage of her.
Again and again, government institutions, religious institutions, and family institutions are revealed to be convenient fronts for sexual and/or exploitive relationships. There are some counterbalancing examples of sincerity but they seem to be malformed for having grown in such a world--Tome's relationship with her father is one example and a strange faith Tome has in a "mountain goddess" despite the fact that she joins an exploitive Buddhist cult which eventually leads her to the brothel. But she keeps a scroll representing the goddess in the rafters of one of her homes. At one point, water leaks through the ceiling and the scroll to fall on her head, giving the impression of the goddess weeping over her.