471-474 Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura

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Re: Intentions of Murder (Shohei Imamura, 1964)

#76 Post by knives » Tue Mar 30, 2021 4:36 pm

Likewise to Zedz on all accounts. I’ll rewatch it soon, but probably won’t be able to reach those heights.

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Re: Intentions of Murder (Shohei Imamura, 1964)

#77 Post by zedz » Sun Apr 04, 2021 9:46 pm

This is really deep-dish Imamura: a long, complicated wallow in many of his preoccupations and one of the best examples of his trademark pitiless empathy. (Spoilers follow.)

The first thing that struck me when rewatching the film was the perennial question of the influence or lack of influence of Imamura's former boss Yasujiro Ozu. It was an influence Imamura fought against and, in popular critical opinion, only submitted to in one instance, Black Rain, and yet here we are at the outset of this film with a bespoke version of a characteristic Ozu sequence. A train passes, and after it does, we have a sequence of static shots of landscape, buildings and interior close-ups that carry us through a carefully linked series of visual associations from the railway line, to a neighbouring suburb, to the home of the protagonist. It's the classic Ozu pillow-shot transition sequence, where we don't cut from location to location, but move through oblique, unpopulated transitional spaces. Moving from A to E by passing through B, C, and D. But what's different in Imamura's version, and what sets it apart as a distinctly nuberu bagu version of Ozu, is the tone. We're not starting with an Ozu train shot, but with a grimy, noisy, violent image (and one that will recur throughout the film, generally associated with rape) heading towards us, and we don't just gently cut to a static pillow shot. Instead, the image freezes on blurred action, and the cut is to another still (not just static) image. The pillow shots that follow are all stills, giving the sequence a percussive, clinical, documentary feel rather than Ozu's haiku-esque lyricism. And the segue to narrative action isn't to Sadako or any of the secondary characters, but to doomed animals in a cage. In this opening sequence, Imamura seems to be using the Ozu reference as a pivot into a completely different, grubbier, more violent and unforgiving world.

Sadako, our protagonist, is unprepossessing, to say the least. Her occasional narration often seems obtuse or confused (and towards the end she begins to realise this, when she finds she cannot trust all of her memories) but she's a characteristic Imamura heroine because of her resilience, and during the course of the film she manages to scratch out a tiny niche of agency, a modicum of self-awareness, and a glimmer of sexual satisfaction.

All of the male characters in the film, and the second-most important female character, Miss Masuda, are characterised by their physical frailty, whereas Sadako is a robust survivor. In this respect, she is closest to her ostensible nemesis, her mother-in-law, another strong character who has manage to attain a degree of self-determination in a misogynist society. Interestingly, it's ultimately by "teaming up" with the mother-in-law that Sadako prevails at the end of the film (moving into the ancestral home, opening up a knitting school, taking over the silk farm, and letting the silkworms give her the sensual pleasure the men in her life couldn't).

Sadako's passivity throughout the film starts out as narratively irritating, but turns out to be her secret strength. Her power is to withstand abuse and prevail through stamina and attrition. When confronted by her husband by a series of candid photos, she doesn't come up with any elaborate fabrication, but just denies it's her in the images. She may have intentions of murder, but they're soft and unformed, and she seems to be almost constitutionally unable to do harm to others. In Imamura's universe this counts as goodness, and the tentative optimism at the end of this film counts as a happy ending.

Sadako's new strength also comes from an increased awareness of her social predicament, spurred on by her rape and quasi-blackmail. The film very deliberately rhymes her everyday marital rape (she says no, her husband fucks her anyway) with the intruder-rape that sets her life in a spin. Both kinds of violation are accompanied by screaming train noises, and after the intruder threatens her with an iron during the second home invasion, Sadako finds herself looking at her distorted reflection in the iron the next time she has intercourse with her husband. At this moment, we can sense that Sadako too has made the connection between the acts.

The personal upheaval during the course of the film also causes Sadako to become aware of her legal predicament (she hasn't been officially registered as the parent of her son, and doesn't technically belong to her own family), and with the help of her neighbour (the film's third strong, self-determined female character) remedies that situation. It's an interesting narrative twist on self-becoming. At the start of the film she's defined as a wife and mother, but it emerges that in legal terms she's not even that: she has no legal status, no identity. It's only when an unwelcome identity is imposed on her - victim - that she can generalise this identity to all the other dimensions of her life and ultimately transcend it, and at the end of the film she has attained a number of official identities - wife, mother, daughter-in-law, businesswoman - and dispensed with "victim" (an identity that never becomes 'official', because Sadako never acknowledges the rape to anybody else).

Sadako is a really unusual lead character because she's not a conventional hero - she does little to extract herself from her predicament, and what decisive actions she does contemplate (e.g. confession, murder) she doesn't follow through on - and nor is she a tragic figure (Miss Masuda, the ill-fated other woman, fits that bill much more closely). And she's not particularly comic in any way, either. Imamura never mythologizes her, but never undermines her either. Although we are repeatedly told (not least by Sadako herself) that she is uneducated, we don't get the crowd-pleasing revelation that this is counterbalanced by some animal cunning or raw intellect, or the sentimental indication that she could have been an intellectual contender if only she'd been given the gift of education. Instead, we get some raw background information - Sadako didn't go to school because she was only supposed to be a maid (i.e. she wasn't valued by her adoptive family) - and, in a revealing, blink-and-you'll-miss-it detail, that she's actually much better at maths than her educated husband.

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The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#78 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon May 10, 2021 1:32 pm

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#79 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon May 10, 2021 1:33 pm

Elsewhere on the forum I read the ending of the film in the context of The Pornographers:
Mr Sausage wrote:[The Pornographers is] one to rewatch as I found it rather elliptical and obscure, but something that stuck out is how Imamura avoids the cliche of the moral decline of the younger generation. The two kids sure seem like they're heading for degradation, with the older kid running off, stealing from his family, and engaging in an odd, pseudo-incestuous relationship with his mom, and the younger one descending into some standard delinquency as well as sexual deviance. With Subuya scrambling to keep everything together financially, it'd be easy to see this as an ironical family drama, with the immoral pornographer actually being the moral centre and the moralistic kids the immoral rot; or see it as a straightforward morality play, with the pornographer's immoral career destroying the family and contributing to the moral decline of the children by osmosis.

But the film is neither of those things, because the kids are actually fine. Cut to four-to-five years later, and the kids are responsible adults. Koichi is smartly dressed and business savvy, bringing Subuya opportunities to make money on his doll. Keiko runs the family business with far more success than her parents ever managed. A client mentions rumours of Keiko's wild behaviour, and Keiko brushes it off as youthful folly. Despite thefts, orgies, and getting involved with gangsters, both children become skilled, responsible adults even as Subuya, unable to handle his lack of control over them, descends into obsession and irresponsibility. So the kids are just fine, and the movie never moralizes their earlier behaviour by using it as an impediment to a happy, productive adulthood. In Imamura, a girl can flirt with gangsters, be arrested, be loose, engage in orgies, and still live a decent, happy life untroubled by those things. Imamura never punishes his women for their sexual behaviour.

You can see this, too, in The Insect Woman, where Tome's daughter seems on her way towards the same abuse and exploitation as her mother, only for her to become an exploiter (stealing the pimp's money) in a fraction of the time it'd taken her mother to arrive there. Insects begetting insects in a worsening cycle of degradation, one would think. Except we next see her happy, productive, and pregnant on her farm, having stolen the money to avoid the ugly, hard-scrabble existence of her mother. She's combined her mother's survival instincts and practicality with better opportunities and more clear-sighted goals. She'll be just fine, and the movie does not moralize her earlier theft and prostitution. It's her mother who remains caught in a difficult, insect-like existence as she scrambles towards the farm with one shoe.

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#80 Post by therewillbeblus » Tue May 11, 2021 11:14 pm

Great points about the ironic, or lack of rigid, moralizing- though I wonder if the context of the Japanese postwar “economic miracle” plays a role in these unexpectedly optimistic outcomes (relativist, of course, as we clearly see here and most glaringly in Pigs and Battleships, it's a ruse with its own set of social problems). That doesn’t necessarily change Imamura’s views on rejecting the moral model for karmic consequences, but it does exclude a reading some might glean from these respective fates in a spiritual ethos. I don’t think Imamura allows himself to be misread that aggressively, but instead of an “it’ll all work out” or “God is good” interpretation that celebrates rehabilitation dogmatically, there’s a colder, neutral reading of God’s nonexistence or apatheistic function, and rehabilitation possible due to pragmatic advantages in Japan’s postwar years of opportunities.

I find the latter reading to be an amusing stance, with Imamura essentially saying that he won’t moralize the situation but that it’s not because he knows some secret we don’t. He approaches his characters with sensitivity but humility, suggesting that we shouldn’t dare to assume these ‘deviant’ souls are inherently such or will be judged that way, and yet subtly admits that the outcomes are due to society’s own moralizing, acting as God- so in a different time, the masses he’s aiming this sobering moment at could have executed their alternative philosophy. In this sense, he could even be cheekily implicating the viewers who are astonished by the lack of poetic justice in the fates of the characters as enablers by proxy of the whole culture-shift-as-God zeitgeist, changing in a direction that ultimately grants elasticity to morals in favor of Imamura’s worldview rather than their own.

Going by that interpretation, it makes sense that Tome’s daughter escapes this fate while her mother doesn’t, in the sense that her mother may be trapping herself into this fate via a self-fulfilling prophecy stemming from myopia around the rigid moral model norms she’s always been surrounded by. Tome’s psychosocial development has been hardened by exposure to relentless change (as the narrative takes us on a journey through WWII into postwar years, reflecting the dynamic shifts leading to a reborn culture as opposed to The Pornographers’ narrative introduction into this era's stagnancy, albeit tweaked a bit for Imamura’s amusement), and so her daughter is able to adapt following these exponential shifts as the boiling water simmers. The static period reveals opportunities to fresh eyes that have not been blinded by trauma, and allows her to take advantage of the moral gaps left against prioritized economic ideals to survive, while Tome has been burdened by growing alongside adaptations that have left her homeless of culture and hopeless for stability amongst her environmental aggression. A learned fatalism of yielding to oppressive patriarchal forces, even while resiliently mobilizing within those confines, is replaced by a world where such restrictions are abstract and pliable for her daughter to find empowerment.

In The Pornographers, we see some bureaucratic barriers but they’re much more sterile and pragmatic than a prior generation’s attentive and committed mob of passionate enforcement of morality. There is a scene at about the ¾ mark where Ozawa, the pornographer, expresses the practical monetary reasons he entered into his deviant field, and then laments man’s fate as “pathetic creatures” with empathy. It’s a moment of further irony, that those engaging in the deviant acts that would be moralized and consequenced in a bygone era are still the very people who are intimately connected with mankind on the ground level, versus the elitist economists, and thus have more consideration for man’s philosophical and psychological fates, even if that means questioning the self-preserving shifts in values that have allowed him/them to stay afloat. I don't like The Pornographers very much comparably to Imamura's other work, but this scene seems to be issuing a worldview of irony and empathy for humanity's fatalistic relationship with culture, or at least corrosive conflict, that Imamura himself has spent a career engaging with before this film and for the remainder of his career.

Going back to The Insect Woman, I'm curious how others read Imamura's intrusive freeze-frame technique. I could see how they could come across as abrasively forcing the audience to stall on these images of trauma without the reprieve of immediately moving on to the next stop in our journey while the characters, and people in real life, are unable to.. but I can also read them as validating beyond audience provocation. Imamura is validating the emotion of the characters in these scenes, and almost like how Tarantino uses his power as a director to manipulate history and authenticate emotion behind this wish-fulfillment (especially in his last film, which for me so clearly moves beyond superficial catharsis into a sensitivity to be 'seen' and recognized as a worthy human being), Imamura is granting Tome the attention she deserves by resisting the laws of physics and stopping time, temporally grounding us in her truth. These stills become progressively more violent to reflect her psychological, physical, and spiritual decline, but there's a warmth to their bolded force that transcends mere exploitation, and the fact that they continue into the present with her daughter demonstrates a valuing of all experience that will never stop. If it's not broadly humanistic, Imamura is certainly tending to his women with unconditional affection.

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#81 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed May 12, 2021 12:16 pm

therewillbeblus wrote:I'm curious how others read Imamura's intrusive freeze-frame technique.
The essay on the film in the recent Imamura book persuasively reads them along with the titles and dates as Brechtian techniques meant to distance us from both the material (reinforcing the entomological theme/vision of the Japanese title) and break the documentary illusion by highlighting the film's constructedness (aligning it with A Man Vanishes). I don't remember the specific conclusions of the essay (and may be inadvertently cannibalizing them below), but it does strike me that Imamura uses formalist techniques in a more thoughtful way than might be apparent on the surface. Because they're so intrusive (whether here, or in The Pornographers and Intentions of Murder), one might be tempted to dismiss them as Imamura succumbing to the spirit of the 60s avant-garde and layering them over top of otherwise realistic movies. But I don't think so.

Despite his reputation of being an "entomologist" of human behaviour, Imamura in the 60s is equally concerned with the meaning-making capacity of film as a formal medium. The sudden, intrusive formalist elements serve an expressive function in each film (for starters, the films don't repeat each other's major formalist devices). In Intentions of Murder, they exterorize the internal states of characters, making a convictionless suicide attempt seem unreal; making the past seem like totemic nightmares to be lost in; emotional states enlarged into filmic atmosphere. In The Pornographers, character situations are paralleled and parodied by grotesque symbolism, inviting us to see the characters as trapped creatures distorted by funhouse glass. In The Insect Woman, they make specific character actions part of a process: historical, social, behavioural. If Tome is an insect, Japan is an insectarium. Which is to say, if a film applies meaning to events by, say, dating them and situating the actions in specific social and historical contexts, no less is that the case in a country which constructs and promotes historical narratives and social systems. If the film periodically halts to remind the viewer of its own constructedness, no less are we invited to reflect on the constructedness of social institutions and ideas in post war Japan. Tome is an insect woman, but the film does not show a familiar but fake process of a martyr becoming a dragon lady by crossing iron moral codes. Because her life is represented as a process more than an original set of circumstances, the events become the conditions of post-war Japanese life itself: what happens when survival instinct mixes with poverty, oppression, and exploitation. For instance, Tome the exploited prostitute becoming exploitative madame becoming jailbird (the exact same as the madame before her), is capped by one of the film's most abrasive formalist intrusions. The freeze frames highlight not just the cyclical nature of the process, but allows us to reflect that all of these survival behaviours only exist because post war society makes the poor reliant on prostitution to survive while also making it illegal for them to rely on it. People are victims of each other and also victims of a system and a set of attitudes. The film wants us to be aware of how it has constructed the central part of the film as a cycle; we're not watching a documentary of a random person's life, but an account of behaviours in a constructed environment (constructed by the film, but constructed by society as well).

Imamura is no cynic or heavy-handed moralist, however. He sees the negative outcomes as clearly as the positive--and that's why Tome's daughter is so important in the film. We see another exploited person become an exploiter only to build for herself a positive, productive life without having hurt anyone very much. The movie is not a finger-wag at a society descending into corruption. It's a story of people finding their own ways to survive in an environment that promotes a collective social idea, officially, but builds that idea atop a society happy enough to victimize others in a get-ahead attitude. So goes human behaviour. Imamura is entomological in the sense that he is not judgemental. His form of criticism is to present things how they are, clear eyed. His rhetoric is not meant, like Oshima's, to persuade. His largest rhetorical effects are turned back on themselves.

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#82 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed May 12, 2021 12:26 pm

Mr. Sausage -- I am not even certain that Oshima was (typically) interested in "persuading" rather than throwing things in people's faces to tell them how much they sucked. But I very much agree with you as to Imamura. ;-)

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#83 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed May 12, 2021 12:29 pm

Yeah, I should know better than to be that sweeping about a filmmaker I'm not all that knowledgeable about. Let's say the Oshima of Death by Hanging, which is undoubtedly a movie of persuasion.

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#84 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed May 12, 2021 12:29 pm

Sausage- that all sounds about right, and my use of terms like "suggest" were meant to convey presentations of contradictory systemic outcomes and experiences that reciprocally inform each other in a nonjudgmental manner, as opposed to some moral or rigid position that served to render complex issues fixed in place.

I appreciate Imamura's continual return to this exhibition of people trapped within structures, and yet ending with a woman able to 'escape' these confines, relatively speaking. Not unscathed, and perhaps not towards some optimistic venture of self-actualization, but still transcending barriers in an empowered way. Pigs and Battleships, which I just revisited last night and remains my favorite of this trilogy, is maybe the most glaring example. Haruko's exit literally avoids the physical manifestations of these systems by walking past the battleships, though she certainly had to endure some trauma to surrender and peripherally realise her mobility outside of this milieu.
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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#85 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed May 12, 2021 12:37 pm

(I hope you didn't take anything I wrote as a criticism. I loved your post. A lot of good insights into this film and The Pornographers, too).

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#86 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed May 12, 2021 12:43 pm

Not at all, just clarifying in agreement! I happened to have The Pornographers lined up for a watch before this film won film club, so it was a happy coincidence that I watched them back to back after your post linked them in analysis.

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#87 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed May 12, 2021 1:03 pm

Pigs and Battleships (my favorite of all his films, probably) and Eejanaika always struck me as a near-perfect double bill (except perhaps for length). And I like the fact that they are set in the same location (albeit almost 100 years apart in time).

I really did love the end of Insect Woman (but was sorry that the protagonist never managed to find the freedom her daughter did).

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The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#88 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed May 12, 2021 1:31 pm

Pigs and Battleships is actually my least favourite of the three films, but that moment you highlight is probably the bluntest example of Imamura’s approach to prostitution. The mere act of engaging in sex, mercantile or otherwise, is not a condition for downfall but a form of negotiating with the world. In The Insect Woman, brothel work or being a kept woman are both traps since they don’t lead outside of themselves, but depend on a kind of job stability neither can have given they lie outside of official society. In Pigs and Battleships we see prostitution explicitly linked to something even more tenuous, foreign interests. Haruko’s parents’ scheme to hitch her to the American as a concubine is for them a way out because it promises the half illusory idea of foreign riches. But there’s no stability there, either, given such relationships are not officially recognized, even if unofficially promoted; and few things are more ephemeral than foreign capital from a transient dominant class.

Prostitution in Imamura is not a moral trap but a social one, born of a need that is officially disavowed. It’s a theme Imamura would return to again and again, most powerfully in Making of a Prostitute. Imamura saw this as the unofficial story of modern Japan: using prostitution to collect foreign money to help fund imperialist wars, but then disavowing the practise for the sake of national image and abandoning all who had been gathered into it. He tells something like this story in miniature across his films: people caught within systems in which they have no official position in society while society continues to benefit from them. Imamura’s women are often negotiating with such systems. The fact of their having sex is not a moral issue but a condition of negotiating with society.

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Re: The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

#89 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed May 12, 2021 2:50 pm

Well said. My reasons for loving Pigs and Battleships the most are, perhaps uncharacteristically, not because I think it's Imamura's richest or most provocative film. It's arguably his most openly transparent work, where the audience has to do the least legwork to comprehend what he's putting forth, but also his sharpest satire as a result of wearing these nationalist contradictions and social ironies on his sleeve. It's a film that's tragic and yet superficially hilarious in all its absurdity, with the pigs-release culminating a war of increasingly high-stakes drama with a reflexive release of all meaning put into these values, that have deluded many of our characters into make life-altering sacrifices out of false virtues propagated by their dogmatic systems' ideologies. I also love the absurdist misinterpretations with the boss' illness and the hitman's unwillingness to execute him due to the false money. It's all so dark in its existential poison, choices made through error of systems (false medical report, false currency) rather than moral ones with considered thought and philosophical commitment, and the scenario is born out of a screwball comedy soaked in oil and lit on fire. Imamura's ability to make such an entertaining and memorable indictment of ideals, posture at nihilism and then end with profound meaning in one character's escape of meaningless systems, putting the onus on the structures rather than the people, is a tonal balance well-struck.

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Re: 471-474 Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura

#90 Post by therewillbeblus » Mon May 17, 2021 7:59 pm

I finally revisited Intentions of Murder, and have little to add to the excellent analyses of Mr Sausage and zedz, but I found myself likening Imamura's film to Paul Verhoeven's Elle (the last time I saw the Imamura was probably about a year before the Verhoeven came out) in an only-slightly opposing manner. While Huppert's Michèle is a socially dominant female powerhouse within her company culture, Sadako is a socially submissive and systemically disempowered female; however, both become shattered not by oppressive forces that eliminate agency per se, but by unexpected events occurring. The rape for Sadako at home with her husband, her life of experiencing signifiers of shame, etc. are all expected beats of her life, and ones that she's resiliently made comfortable enough to cope with; just as Michèle is able to recontextualize her rapes that superficially eliminate agency as fueled by her agency once she's able to engage in participation with knowledge, expecting their occurrences.

I think this is why Sadako runs to suicide in a fit of emotional dysregulation (or at least what prompts her to do so in a reactive manner, aside from the ideological rationale of her cultural customs); she has just experienced a brand-new form of disempowerment, shame, and violence, that blindsided her from those she's learned to be complacent with, and thus the oppressive systems of her social environment have creatively found a new method to violate her while she remains forcibly stagnant. Once her rapist begins to come back and make banal confessions, she begins to restore balance to her agency, much like Michèle does from the outset. Sadako's rapist quickly fits her schematic understanding of people, beating to the ordinary expectations of all the men in her life, and this bores her more than frightens her. She understands this, the behavior is pathetically familiar and not erratically unhuman like the wordless initial encounter.

I like zedz' assertion that Sadako is repelled by the status of "victim," and that unexpected rape- serving as some iteration of the Real, or a disorienting sober reminder of what she's been protecting herself from acknowledging- strips away her defenses to pose that identity as a possibility, driving her to suicide. So, as Sausage says in the end of his writeup, she transforms that disempowered definition into an empowered one and cements her identity as a survivor. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but I don't think so, that in sexual assault communities, the identity of "survivor" has replaced "victim" over the last couple decades for reasons stemming from the same generation rationalizations as stated in this thread. Even if the movements themselves didn't initiate this change until fairly recently, the stigma felt, and psychological need to redefine identities towards empowerment, were always present. Imamura, always an empathetic filmmaker way ahead of his time, could understand that on some level. His women are "survivors," facing a status as "victims," becoming understandably disturbed at this notion, and resiliently doing whatever is in their power- even if that power stops at attitude- and choosing "survivor."

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