Japanese cinephiles know very well how certain directors love to use the theme of the suffering or fallen woman in their films. Call them cautionary tales or a form of sadism or a combination of both. Yasujiro Ozu had Setsuko Hara to play demure and mournful, always seemingly caught between innocence and adulthood, Kenji Mizoguchi had Kinuyo Tanaka to throttle with death, demotion and exile, and Mikio Naruse had Hideko Takamine to exquisitely torture by dangling a quiet and satisfying life on a string in front of her just so he could yank it away at the last minute. All of these actresses, though, played women who no matter how low they plummeted into poverty and suffering had all started out in their own personal sunny Edens, but in the case of Tome, in Shohei Imamura's 1963 Japanese New Wave classic "The Insect Woman", she is a woman who was born at the absolute bottom and who learns very quickly that every seeming humiliation and tragedy must be overcome or if possible turned into a foothold so she can claw her way up from nothing to something.
Born in 1918 into a dirt poor family in an out of the way village Tome, played by Eiko Aizawa, isn't immediately aware of just how bad her life is. Abandoned by a mother more interested in sexually servicing men in the village than parenting Tome is left to be raised by her mentally challenged father (Kazuo Kitamura). Both seem vaguely aware that life has dealt them a very raw deal, but their togetherness is their one hint of sweetness in the whole sour mess. Tome's dedication and love for him is evident, and in some ways reminsicent of Setsuko Hara's and Chishu Ryu's father/ daughter bond in Ozu's "Late Spring"... except that Chishu Ryu never slept with his own daughter. This is what I mean by "just how bad" Tome's life is, but still Tome clings to the certainty of life at home with dumb old Dad even agreeing to marry the son of a mill owner only if she doesn't have to sleep with him. This lasts until her new husband Shinzo rapes her and the marriage falls apart. Even though she's left with a daughter, Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) we finally give a sigh of relief once Tome is forced to go into Tokyo to work. Maybe now she can leave her childhood behind and start her life.
And Tome does in some ways move on, but to say that the road is rocky would be an understatement. Working in another mill she helps run a union with a male co-worker, but after an affair with him is dumped. She takes a job as a housekeeper for a woman and her American lover, but is racked by guilt when the man's daughter dies while in her care. One tragedy after another leads her to seek solace in religion, attending a Buddhist temple where she confesses all of her sins and missteps and it's there that she meets a woman who will finally turn Tome's life around. This woman turns out to be the madam of a brothel and it doesn't take long for Tome to learn the business.
Eiko Aizawa as Tome takes the delicate, porcelain ideal of the Japanese woman and smashes it to bits. Tome is an instantly recognizable character with her raspy voice, her earthy beauty and her fierce determination. It's this dogged determination to transcend her past and survive that propells Aizawa from depicting Tome as a wounded and bewildered farm girl to a cunning and ruthless madame with her own stable of prostitutes, all the while taking us through the full sweep of Japanese history from the Taisho era through WW2, the U.S. occupation and into the tumultuous rebuilding of Japan.
Shohei Imamura has been famously quoted as saying that his observation of an insect's determined march around and around his ashtray led to the title, and in some ways the content, of "The Insect Woman", but to take Tome as small and insignificant like a bug would be a grave mistake. In her Imamura has subverted the recurring theme in Japanese cinema of the pathetic woman and created one of the most complete and contradictory female characters in film history.