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Pigs and Battleships – Review

by Josh DuShane

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A Nikkatsu Production. Grand Lucky. “This story is entirely fictional.” American sailors. Hat stolen. Chase. Brothel. Raid. Arrest. Prostitutes wishing death on the occupying American police. A couple discussing, what else, the prospect of taking as much money as they can.

This is the frenetic opening of Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships. The overall narrative of the film is not that complex. In post-war Japan, people are working hard, but never so much more than the Yakuza. In the city of Yokosuka, Kinta (played by Hiroyuki Nagato) and his lover Haruko (played by Jitsuko Yoshimura, probably most famous as the daughter in Kindo’s Onibaba) brave the post-occupation period with a goal to be together. Though her family has agreed to sell her to the highest bidding Yank in Japan. While Kinta deals with his relationship with Haruko, his Yakuza clan is faced with a serious problem. Sakiyama, a Hawaii-born Japanese ex-naval officer, is providing the clan with the scraps they need to feed their pigs, but with strings and dollars attached. As the gang shells out more and more money, Sakiyama begins to move his alliances—and so do the members of the gang.

In the early part of his career Imamura was compared most often, not to fellow “new wavers” Oshima, Yoshida, Suzuki (whom actively dislike the films and its filmmaker), but to the more unhip, but more familiar to westerners, Akira Kurosawa. Pigs and Battleships may be the film that most clearly demonstrates this influence on Imamura.

The quick pacing of the opening of the film belies the technical craft of it. Almost the entirety of it is done in two long, complex tracking shots, punctuated by insert shots that may or may not move narrative, character development (what little there is this early in the film), or develop an aesthetic mood. The relationship this has with Kurosawa might be obvious already, but to flesh it out; this opening section contains essentially all narrative information.

Japan. Post-war. The “hero” runs a brothel that his semi-fiance works as a sort of bartender/dishgirl in, and will be running a pig farm for his gang because of the skyrocketing price of pork.

This use of quick narrative set-ups made with as little exposition as possible was something favored by the new wave in general, but in this film it specifically has its roots in Kurosawa (one thinks of Seven Samurai, in which Kurosawa sets-up the entire narrative in about five minutes and never once expands upon it). The approach of the narrative purely for purposes of development of characters along with aesthetic is directly in line with how Kurosawa operated. To use a narrative plot point, not as a chance to further towards another plot point, but to expand a character, add to their complexity, or to develop an overall mood. The mood points to a clear difference between Kurosawa and Imamura. Kurosawa always favored objectivity in the mood of his pictures, almost until the exact height of the climax; again one thinks of the almost staid observation of suffering farmers, compared with the final scene of the devastating emotional collapse of the samurai in Seven Samurai. Imamura’s mood is always subjective, always at its height.

The grittiness of the post-war setting, too, seems to harken to Kurosawa, whom always favored the grimy over the clean when not working in his signature jidaigeki. In fact the opening of the film seems almost taken from a hold-over on Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, or even that it could’ve itself been held over for Kurosawa’s own High and Low, made a year later. Though the location shooting once again points to Imamura’s new wave roots, but also just as easily recalls another Kurosawa film; Stray Dog. Especially given the suggested heat in both films through almost blindingly bright daytime cinematography. This contrasts with new wave filmmakers in that the poverty; the gritty nature of the production and landscape therein is never celebrated in Imamura or Kurosawa. Kurahara’s The Warped Ones revels in its almost nihilist landscape fitting its definitively nihilist hero.

The clearest lineage in this film, however, is one Imamura would later come to move away from, and that is his penchant for montage-esque insert shots around complexly maneuvered tracking takes. And Imamura’s favoring of very wide-angle lenses recalls early Kurosawa, again of around the time of Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. But this too harkens to a clear contrast between these filmmakers, and what makes Imamura an artist very difficult to compare to anyone, sans his one cinematic compatriot in Japan, Yuzo Kawashima.

The use of intercutting in Kurosawa was always to deliver a message. To delve into a larger human concern than the small drama that is being played out on screen and arrives at a conclusion therein. But Imamura never expands upon his world. They are self-contained and even this early in his career he was beginning to delete everything from his films but character. The grandiose nature of Imamura’s films comes from their intimacy, from their characters, solely. The detailed explorations are not of humanity in total, but of the singularity of the explosiveness of human emotion. And Imamura and Kawashima always argued that this was true Japan, not genial, not tradition-laden, not confused over modernization, but only concerned with themselves and the day-to-day expansion of their meager surroundings. That is the true Japanese spirit (and if true, it stands to reason why it so resembles the American spirit).

This is perfectly explicated about half-an-hour into the film in a scene between Kinta and Haruko. Kinta has come home, he lives with his father, from a day spent extorting and gambling (his gang is utterly ruthless in their tactics of extracting money). But he also gives the madam of the brothel 20,000 yen for her lease, merely because she needed it. No further questions. The film also shows Kinta as a hesitant extortionist, which suggests Imamura was not yet ready to allow his lead the ruthlessness he would allow their surroundings.

Kinta arrives home, late, and Haruko is waiting for him in her home. They share a small moment together and the conversation turns to their marriage, Haruko suggests they live with his father. Kinta first expresses lack of interest in the conversation, marriage, or a rejection of it in its entirety, living with his father. Kinta discusses the mass of wealth he will attain in this gang, and how unnecessary it will be for them to live in squalor. Haruko lightly chides him for his materialism. Haruko then complains about Kinta’s life as a Yakuza and his seeming lack of affection towards her. He takes none of these complaints with the least bit of sincerity and forces her to go home. But before she leaves he gives her a big smile and says, in English, “good night!” This final portion, by the way, is shot in Imamura’s signature overhead shot.

That is Imamura. The ability for every character to be playful, loving, caring, angry, selfish, mean and uninterested all at the same time. Despite all extraneous details pertaining to the situation, all that matters is the enclosed moment of almost meaningless emotion expressed on screen.

Overall for newcomers to Imamura this is the best possible introduction. It presents what is and what would become definably Imamura in a manner that they are almost certainly accustom. And to the already initiated this film may present a classical feel to Imamura’s work they’ve never seen before, as well showing off the kind of technical craftsmanship that he would do away with in his mature work.

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Author: Josh DuShane

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