Pigs and Battleships Review
In a move reminiscent of the BFI's release pattern for its Yasujiro Ozu titles, and dating even earlier to its own handling of a series of Kenji Mizoguchi films, the Masters of Cinema Series has paired Shohei Imamura's highly regarded Japanese New Wave classic Pigs and Battleships with the director's lesser-known debut feature Stolen Desire for this Dual Format edition release. While Stolen Desire has never before been officially available with English subtitles, the Criterion Collection previously put out Pigs and Battleships on DVD. That R1 edition, found only in Criterion's Pigs, Pimps and Prostitutes box set, was covered extensively at this site upon its release in May of 2009. In reviewing the MoC Dual Format version, I've modified my earlier review of Pigs and Battleships and added some discussion of Stolen Desire.
Japanese cinema is sometimes thought of as revolving brightly around Akira Kurosawa's western-ready samurai classics or the middle class family dramas of Yasujiro Ozu. The latter's austerity and the former's dynamic accessibility both enjoy worldwide audiences. The likes of Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kobayashi often take a backseat in popularity but those directors too fit somewhere amid the unique national cinema of Japan that's been exported for decades. And yet, there's an entirely different side of the country on film. Not domestic melodrama, samurai actioner, or poignant ghost story, this other type of movie clawed at boundaries and found an interest in far seedier stories. Roughly ten to fifteen years after the end of World War II, a collection of Japanese filmmakers separately worked to present needling accounts of the country's problems. These movies are barbed critiques at society and often stinging indictments against the politics of the island nation. The term "Japanese New Wave" was later coined by the film studios as a banner of sorts for the work of Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Seijun Suzuki and others during the sixties. Though many of these films remain neglected by English language distributors, both the Masters of Cinema Series and the Criterion Collection have dutifully scratched the surface with some of the key works of this artificial movement.
After serving his requisite four years as an assistant director at the Shochiku studio, even working under Ozu on three films including Tokyo Story, and moving to the youth-oriented studio Nikkatsu to quickly direct four pictures of modest distinction in the late fifties, Shohei Imamura broke through with Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan) in 1961. The sea change in Imamura's output wasn't necessarily reflected by universal acclaim or wide popularity, but the work that followed was simply extraordinary and Pigs and Battleships must be seen as the director's creative turning point. Many of Imamura's hallmarks are here: the put-upon and deceptively ordinary lower class heroine, a fascination with society's undesirables, a wicked streak of black humor, disregarding of reverence, and a clinical or anthropological eye for people otherwise underrepresented on film. Through it all, Imamura establishes a necessary distance from his characters but the feeling remains that he does have a dash of humanism guiding their fates.
Pigs and Battleships takes place in the port city of Yokosuka, notable as the largest American naval facility in Japan. The wayward yank sailors play an important though secondary role in the film, and the recurring use of John Phillip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" is done with mad irony. Everything obviously American comes with negative connotations. Central characters Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are a young couple filled with confusion in their relationship. They do seem to truly care about one another, but Kinta's a bit of a dimwit. Some of his shortcomings are easily attributed to a disgruntled conception of his environment while others indicate he's simply lazy and stupid. Imamura succeeds in keeping the character endearing enough to still matter, with Kinta never a hopeless figure. His interest in the local low-rent yakuza (the chinpira) is partially attributed to seeing his working class father struggle for very little. Haruko finds herself pregnant with Kinta's child just as her mother arranges to literally sell her into marriage to an American GI. She may recognize the downside of Kinta's gangster involvement despite her sister being married to the local boss, but Haruko obviously has little place to turn for support or guidance.
At every single opportunity Imamura is there poking or prodding. His interest in anthropology and entomology is often discussed, including the name and subject matter of his next film The Insect Woman and the lesser-known second half of the title to The Pornographers which reads "Introduction to Anthropology." He's constantly giving everything in this film a second look, and viewing it all with extremely dark humor, so much so that Pigs and Battleships is almost surely the director's most audaciously funny movie and probably also his most overall entertaining. One example finds the inept yakuza-lite gang committing a murder and then having the body wash up one morning. The hoodlums scurry around like mice before Kinta is urged to take the blame to increase his standing in the organization. Some men inspecting the waterfront area peek inside a bag only to see that it's full of dead dogs. The entire sequence is bitingly and horrifyingly funny for its lack of shame in exposing the terror of this unfolding insanity. Imamura doesn't explicitly focus on just how ignorant and evil these criminals are, but it's absolutely there if given any thought. The de facto leader, a weakling insistent that he's dying from stomach cancer, is just a step or two from parody.
Imamura proves himself a master at the unlikely blending of absurdity with a bit of neorealistic poignancy. Though the climactic scene, where unleashed pigs (the animal variety, not the comparatively less innocent humans Imamura draws parallels with throughout the film) wreak havoc in the street, and the overall tone of the film are both laced with obvious elements of farce, Pigs and Battleships arguably defies being identified with any one genre. Just as there are moments of pure comedy, like a well-placed insurance advertisement billboard, there are also heartbreaking scenes, drained of any humor, that allow the viewer to remember that Imamura wants you to laugh only after you’ve understood the seriousness of what’s at stake. The scene between Haruko and three U.S. servicemen, broken up to show only the before and after but with resistance more than implied, is a deadly serious encounter with a potentially life-altering result. Imamura coldly turns to a God's eye camera angle and spins from night to some hour of morning. The effect is jolting and a complete alteration of tone. Any ideas of a distant lightness are abandoned for harsh, real reminders that American soldiers ostensibly there in peace have either taken advantage of or, more likely, violated a young Japanese woman. Their postcoital celebratory shower and serenade of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" returns Imamura to his discomfiting critique.
Nowhere does the director revel more obviously or delightfully in his self-described tendency to make "messy" films than in that extremely memorable breath of fire that is the pigs on parade scene. Coming near the end of the movie and after a series of almost intricate plot threads involving the gangsters' new pig raising racket, the sheer madcap anarchy of Kinta brandishing a powerful machine gun as a couple of trucks' full of swine frantically scurry down the busy street is total cinematic bliss. The scene is simply one of the great moments ever put on film. A reverse tracking shot allows for a Godzilla-size effect where the pigs trample their way through the night. It is pure, riotous and a highlight of Imamura's career. The unmistakably violent but sort of cartoonish battle between Kinta and his former cohorts that plays out as the hogs are liberated only makes the jaw drop further. As you're still recovering from the pigs, Imamura then hauls out the battleships and reminds us that no one's a lost cause.
With such a well-drawn model of comparison, it's incredibly tempting to try to view Stolen Desire through the prism of Shohei Imamura's later films and career as a whole. After all, Imamura is rightly recognized as a director whose movies share many attributes from one to the next and he comfortably sits in the velvet seats reserved for those respectfully deemed as auteurs. There are a few things to support such a reading too, including some opening narration that recalls something possibly from a documentary and the emphasis therein on Osaka following the Americans' dropping of the hydrogen bomb in 1945. The story itself, about a group of traveling theatre performers, has little to nothing to do with how Osaka rebuilt itself following the atomic devastation, but one senses that Imamura probably wanted to draw attention to the city's recovery. Imamura held a deep cynicism evident at times in his films but he was also selectively patriotic and critical of most everything Western. A little aside in Stolen Desire plays on the latter, when an opportunistic woman introduces "Coca-Cola" to sell at the theatrical performances. In reality, she seems to be piggybacking on the cache of the drink's name (and its Americanness) since she's concocted her own formula of mint soda mixed with Chinese medicine.
Imamura's directorial debut carries with it little reputation and, thus, modest expectations at best. Had a less celebrated director made Stolen Desire there might be hardly any interest in it today. The general wisdom puts Imamura's breakthrough as being his fifth feature, Pigs and Battleships, which is conveniently what Stolen Desire is packaged here with, ostensibly as a supplement. I'd maybe argue that his sixth feature, The Insect Woman, was actually the one where Imamura fully met his potential as a filmmaker and solidified his cinematic style. Regardless, Stolen Desire has never been legitimately available to an English speaking audience until now. Perhaps that further insinuates some opinion about its quality or worth. Before the piñata busts in full, it's worth clarifying that Stolen Desire is a pretty good picture and a completely unembarrassing debut by Imamura. As mentioned earlier, many of his ideas can be filtered out of what is a fairly conventional story and the film certainly favors his interest in rather inelegant characters.
Hiroyuki Nagato, who would give a far broader performance as Kinta in Pigs and Battleships, is Shinichi, a University-educated idealist who's spurned offers from television and possibly elsewhere to stay with a rather ragtag group of traveling actors and serve as their director. He believes the essence of the craft is best found among these performers, an opinion perhaps analogous to some of Imamura's own views. The show, and the film, begins with a female strip show that sets some sort of mood - whether it's the mood that needs to be set leading up to a play is potentially up for debate - prior to the actors coming on and doing their show. In Osaka, they're met with a largely empty audience after most leave following the half-naked ladies exiting the stage. Discouraged, the troupe moves on to a smaller town where they end up being welcomed with open arms and much enthusiasm. Among the performers, Shinichi is in love with the wife of one of the actors while her sister feels the same about Shinichi.
Floating Weeds this isn't, but Stolen Desire meanders along nicely enough. Its appeal lies primarily as a curiosity piece for those already interested in Imamura rather than as a means of conversion. Being able to trace the director's career now from the beginning is a very welcome proposition and a great way to see how sharp Imamura's instincts were even as he was just getting a feel for the profession.
As stated above, the Masters of Cinema Series has adopted a double feature approach to this release, pairing Pigs and Battleships with its director Shohei Imamura's first feature. With Pigs and Battleships dominating the MoC cover art, it seems appropriate to treat that film as the main attraction and Stolen Desire as only a supplement for review purposes. The Dual Format release consists of a Blu-ray locked to Region B and a shinier, more antiquated disc known as a DVD inside the package.
Both films are presented in 1080p high definition on the dual-layered BD, also sharing the common aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The press release states that Pigs and Battleships has been restored from the original camera negative. It certainly looks better than I've ever seen it, and probably better than I could have possibly imagined it would. In comparison to DVD, either the previous Criterion edition or even the included MoC version, the Blu-ray image shows a remarkable crispness that is able to accentuate the viewing experience to such a degree that the film somehow becomes more enjoyable with that increased level of detail now available. Contrast, a key visual concern in the black and white Scope films from the Japanese New Wave, is also generally tighter and improved. The overall fluidity in motion of watching this is such a joy to behold. It seems that anything MoC chooses to release in HD can be trusted to look extraordinary, and the clean, sharp transfer of Pigs and Battleships is no exception.
Stolen Desire, while also in high definition, does not look nearly as impressive. It's, again, ostensibly a supplement and certainly a less celebrated film so there's little reason to expect that same level of quality. Still, it's a significant drop-off when compared against the main feature. It often looks darker, with much less detail visible, and softer overall. Simple availability, and in HD too, is a satisfying enough victory that any complaints that the film doesn't look perfect would seem a bit misplaced.
The audio on both films comes in the form of Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio tracks spread across two front channels on the Blu-ray. They are modest in scope and effective in practice. Dialogue and music are emitted cleanly, more so in Pigs and Battleships. I detected nothing in the way of significant damage or obstructions in either track. Any limitations are surely inherent to the films rather than a result of neglect or lack of concern by the disc producers. The DVD offers standard Japanese mono audio. Optional subtitles are provided in English. They are white in color and sport what seems to be a fine translation.
Supplements-wise, there's nothing on the discs aside from Stolen Desire. However, in addition to that film, the MoC release offers a 36-page booklet as some extra incentive. Inside, Tony Rayns continues his ever-bubbling discussion of Imamura and his films in a pair of newly commissioned writings. Rayns' piece on Stolen Desire, in which he sketches some background on the director's career and identifies a few things in the film that predict Imamura's ongoing interests, runs for more than six pages of text. The Pigs and Battleships essay begins with a brief compare and contrast of Imamura against his contemporary Nagisa Oshima and moves on to a glowing celebration of the film and its director. The write-up occupies another eight pages' worth of text. Further adding a bit of aesthetic value to the booklet, many black and white production stills from the two films augment the essays, and original color poster reproductions illustrate the front and back covers of the insert.
The Masters of Cinema Series has really done right by Shohei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships. It's one of the key films from one of the most exciting movements in cinema history, and it looks sensational here. Add in the opportunity to finally see Imamura's debut feature, also in hi-def, and this release is elevated to essential status.