If you want to make some sense of the rise of Shohei Imamura, it’s convenient enough to fit him into the context of two of Japan’s foremost filmmakers. During his time as a university student at the prestigious Waseda University, he saw a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which not only became a catalyst for Japanese film worldwide but also for young men like Imamura.
However, upon arriving in the film industry he found himself working with another acclaimed master, Yasujiro Ozu. The only problem is that Imamura’s own sentiments played in stark contrast to his elder’s fairly sedate albeit meticulous style. Imamura wanted to get into the issues and the conflicts of the times. He feels like both a nonconformist with a bit of a rebellion in his blood and someone with an acute appreciation for humanity.
Here he positions himself as a Japanese New Wave iconoclast having some fun at the expense of his countrymen and their most prominent post-war ally: the United States. In his own words, he was an anthropologist using his films to analyze humanity in all its foibles and messier predilections.
This might be as good a place as any to provide a jumping-off point for Pigs and Battleships. It plays as the antithesis of his elder Ozu by readily showing Japan at its most pathetic with a host of men who might well be a circus of dim-witted ignoramuses in a comedy of errors.
In the opening frames, you get an instant impression of the backstreets and alleyways frequented by American sailors, bums, and pretty girls with their come-hither looks. Vagrants of all sizes can be found scampering around town messing with sailors — swiping their hats — and generally causing mischief. Some of this is organized.
This is the unruly underbelly of Japan as represented by the seaport of Yokosuka and those with a certain perception of civilized Japanese society, would do well to avert their eyes. Imamura has no intent to present some idealized or cloying sense of his homeland
Kinta is one of the ilk of street trash gaining our attention for whatever reason. He’s a lowly gangster yet to earn his stripes. Hiroyuki Nagato plays him in such a way that his movements come off as those of a callow, entirely overgrown child. While he tries to make a name for himself among the local gangsters, he has an on-and-off fling with a local girl named Haruko.
She’s not a glamour queen, but there’s something good and decent about the naivete found in her eyes. However innocent she might be, she still chides Kinta to get out of the racket and take up a steady factory job out of town.
Whether he meant to or not, you begin to see how the Japanese New Wave was carried on the shoulders of filmmakers such as Imamura. He accentuates a certain world through a particular methodology.
Where hoodlums feel more like snickering hyenas in baggy clothing ready to pound the populous for a good laugh. These aren’t criminals given any amount of deference or import. It feels like we should scorn them even in their hijinks trying to make some money off a drove of pigs.
However, the movie is not without a shock factor. You know when a man’s head is dunked in a tank of gasoline and a thug waves a lighter in front of him ominously, he’s making the threat count. It’s easy to see the director pushing back against any post-war American tokenism. Because Kinta is found right in the crosshairs.
Where being American is king and if you can’t be white Anglo-Saxon — victors of WWII and wooer of Japanese women — at least with the gangs you get to do something cool with your life. You belong to something bigger than yourself. Anything honest and menial is frowned upon. There’s a self-contained scene when a little boy reads out loud how refined and highly cultivated Japan has been able to fluidly integrate aspects of other nations, the irony is not lost.
You only must watch what happens before and after to have a good laugh. The hiccups keep on coming. The mobsters have their hands full disposing of a body, and it feels like a bout derivative from The Trouble With Harry than any hardened crime drama. Try not to giggle with morbid glee when they find a false tooth inside the pig they’re chowing down on!
Even, the yakuza boss, that symbol of towering and lethal villainy is a sorry figure. He’s dying of cancer — looking pitiful when his little brother comes to visit him — the gang gathered around his bedside. He thinks he only has days to live and there are so many affairs to get in order. Namely, all the debts he still needs to collect!
We also meet the man known only as Sakiyama at a bar talking with a Chinese fellow. They’re involved in this pork deal between the Americans and the locals. Although the “Japanese-American” man speaks English, it’s easy enough to tell in a moment it’s not his native tongue. This actor is Japanese and so the illusion is broken, but given the carnivalesque bits of business we’ve already been privy to, it’s not completely out of place.
Because things just keep on falling apart in this ever-changing state of fateful narrative entropy. For most of the film, Imamura remains an observer, but in one specifically pointed setup, he inserts himself into the action. It happens in the aftermath of a row between Kinta and Haruko. They’re probably not getting back together, and she vows to get drunk and party with American seamen as an act of spite.
Instead, she ends up in an empty hotel room with three brawny men prepared to overpower her in their stupor. The overhead shot of Haruka and the three boisterous sailors might be the pinnacle of the film’s hysteria in this intersection of worlds and toxic schemes of life. It breaks the moment down to its most pointed elements as we spin toward oblivion and a horrible outcome that cannot be undone.
Going with its prevailing tone, Pigs and Battleships owns a final act built on total futility. However, there’s something about seeing pigs roaming in the streets that made this feel like Pamplona for porkers. It’s a hilarious image even as the film comes to terms with its own human tragedies. Ozu would never make this movie; not even Kurosawa with his more dynamic proclivities. No, this is something new.
Most important is the implicit message found in the title and much of the comedy. In the post-war landscape, Japan was very much subjugated to America, and they too became conduits of Capitalism. However, in case it’s not already apparent, our way of life and systems come with their share of flaws. Pigs and Battleships begins to suss out the complexities of this relationship. We’d do well to consider it.