Award-Winning Director Shohei Imamura Dies at 79

Award-winning director Shohei Imamura, known for unsettling portrayals of common people and cinematic studies of life at the bottom of Japan's rigid social structure, died Tuesday, his son said. He was 79.

Imamura died of liver cancer, which he had been undergoing treatment for since last year, according to his son, Hirosuke.

Imamura won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for "The Ballad of Narayama" in 1983 and another for "The Eel" in 1997, the fourth director to win the Palme d'Or twice after American Francis Ford Coppola, Bille August of Denmark, and Sarajevo-born Emir Kusturica. Since then, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have jointly won the top prize twice, in 1999 and 2005.

The Tokyo-born director never received an Oscar nomination. While he created masterpieces, they were harsh and failed to fill the American moviegoing appetite for upbeat adventure.

"The themes in his films weren't for Americans, but rather for Europeans," said Tadao Sato, a noted Japanese movie critic. "It would be difficult for Americans to grasp the convoluted state of mind depicted in his works in times after Japan's defeat of the past war."

Elsewhere, though, Imamura was appreciated as a master.

French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres called Imamura the "worthy successor" of Japanese directing giant Akira Kurosawa and noted that Imamura's reputation grew following his successes at Cannes, the prestigious annual cinema competition on the French Riviera.

"The Ballad of Narayama," one of Imamura's most haunting films, is set in an impoverished village in the 19th century. According to custom in this mythical village, families must bring their elderly members to a remote mountain to die when they reach age 70. For one son, following the custom is torture when he unwillingly abandons his mother atop Mount Narayama.

"The Eel" is the story of a murderer whose only companion is a pet eel and who gradually learns to get along with people after rescuing a girl who attempts suicide. Imamura kept an eel as a pet that he acquired during filming, but has said the comparison ended there.

Born in Tokyo in 1926, Imamura studied history at Tokyo's Waseda University before joining Japanese film company Shochiku Co. in 1951, and debuted as a director with "Stolen Desire" in 1958. He followed that with "My Second Brother" and "The Insect Woman," both of which brought him wide recognition.

Imamura developed a reputation for portraying the resilience and energy of common people, as in the 1961 satire "Pigs and Battleships."

"The Insect Woman," made in 1963, and "Unholy Desire" in 1964 depicted the lives of lower-class, uneducated women forced to rely on their sexual instincts for survival.

"Black Rain," won Imamura international acclaim in 1989 for his subtle portrayal of a young woman who slowly deteriorates from radiation sickness following the bombing of Hiroshima.

Imamura is survived by his wife, Akiko, two sons and one daughter. A funeral was planned for June 6 in Tokyo.