His films weren't easy to see--only managed to see two of his films on the big screen: Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi, 1998) in the Hong Kong film festival, and Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (The Profound Desire of the Gods, 1968), and only managed to write a short piece on the former; the rest I had to see on video, or even laserdisc.
I had this to say about Kanzo Sensei:
Shohei Imamura's "Kanzo Sensei" literally translates from the Japanese as "Dr. Liver"--which, when you think of it, better captures the fleshy, somewhat absurd nature of the film than the artier-sounding "Dr. Akagi," the film's official English title. Imamura is a Japanese filmmaker from an older tradition than, say, Kore-Eda Hirokazu ("After Life," "Maborosi") or Kurosawa Kyoshi ("License to Live"). He maintains a fashionably modern distance from his subject but his storytelling style--lively, intimate, totally engaging--recalls Japanese masters like Ichikawa, Mizoguchi and the older Kurosawa.
The film is about a World War II Japanese doctor who literally runs all over the small town that is his territory, diagnosing hepatitis left and right. The town authorities think he has hepatitis in the brain, but that's because the disease is everywhere, in epidemic proportions. The latter half of the film concentrates on Akagi's quest to isolate the hepatitis virus--he throws together a delightfully elaborate device involving flasks, microscopes, a slice of a dead man's liver, and (nice touch) a broken-down movie projector. He almost succeeds (which would have made the film science-fiction) but fate keeps throwing distractions in his way--like the escaped Dutch prisoner all the soldiersare looking for, or the lovestruck nymphomaniac that insists he spank her bottom (Imamura's comic erotic scenes perk you up, like cortisone injections). Akagi muddles through anyway, and achieves an ironic apotheosis--staring into an atomic mushroom cloud in the distance, he recognizes "a huge liver…magnificently hypertrophied!" "Kanzo Sensei" is a tragicomic film about World War II Japan, seen through the befuddled eyes of a benign monomaniac.
I remember seeing Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo in the Detroit Institute of Arts, in the early 90s. Thirty years since I saw that film, and images still stay with me--the priestess with her breasts being mashed, the giant rock hanging above the pit, and how it eventually drops to crush the incestuous lovers, the figure of a woman, prancing on the tracks, before the oncoming train...
His films were often bitingly funny and wonderfully erotic, and that the satisfaction of sexual desire onscreen was often frustrated or interrupted, which only aggravated one's thirst for fulfillment. It gave his work a dirty thrill, a live-wire energy you don't find in many filmmakers today. Also, that the focus on diseased livers probably makes Kanzo Sensei his most prophetic film, and that 'benign monomaniac' might be a good description of the man--he dwelt on the most disturbing subjects with an air of equanimity, as if talking about some pleasant subject (weather, or better yet bar chow), and trained his camera towards his characters with all the attention and intensity of a monomaniac. A great filmmaker.