Pigs and Battleships Review

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 spontaneously 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. Too many of these films are still difficult to find in official DVD releases with English subtitles, but the Criterion Collection has finally put out three of Imamura's most important works in a box set entitled "Pigs, Pimps and Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura."

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 direct four somewhat standard pictures 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 streak of humanism, one mostly absent from his contemporary Oshima, 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 the 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 chimpira) 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. The inept yakuza-lite gang commits a murder and then sees the body wash up one morning. The hoodlums are scurrying around and 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. The tone, though, doesn't really veer in the direction of comedy, making it perhaps more unsettling than if it did.

Imamura really 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.

The Disc

Pigs and Battleships is, along with The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder, part of the Criterion Collection's Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes box and is available exclusively in that set. The R1 dual-layered discs are housed in individual keepcases with 16-page booklets for each film. A distinctive font has been used throughout the set, including in the text of the essays, and a striking hot pink color that resembles the inside of a dragon fruit brightens up the interior of the box as well as the actual discs.

Imamura favored a wide 2.35:1 frame and high contrast black and white in his films from the sixties. Criterion has ably reproduced the image here in a progressive transfer with anamorphic enhancement. The blacks are fairly deep, especially inky in the pig-filled climax. Bright whites are part of the intentionally high contrast style of shooting used. Detail is satisfactory and may actually improve as the film advances. Grain levels are kept down but not fully washed away, and damage is never an issue. This is not as impressive as, for example, how the transfers in Criterion's Hiroshi Teshigahara set looked, but I can't imagine basing a purchasing decision on such relatively unimportant splitting of hairs. Realistically, these films all look pretty amazing and exceptionally cleaned-up.

Single-channel Japanese mono audio lets dialogue usually overtake the score. The actors seem to have been mostly or completely dubbed over after filming. Music does set a definite mood in the film and it still can be heard clearly over the dialogue. It just sounds lower in the mix. The final thumping piece of the score keeps its full impact, however. English subtitles, free from any noticeable typos, are optional and white in color.

Each of the Imamura films in Criterion's box set has a 16-page booklet with an essay on the film, an interview with critic and historian Tony Rayns and a third supplement concerning the director. The essay in the booklet for Pigs and Battleships was written by Audie Bock and particularly talks about Imamura's film in relation to Ozu. Rayns' video piece (15:29) begins with some discussion of the Japanese New Wave and moves on to talk about this specific movie. It's an excellent alternative to a full-length commentary and just the type of thing I'd prefer to watch instead, though Rayns may be too adamant about the film not being specifically anti-American. Imamura clearly was dangling some problems where the Japanese have a shared responsibility for their reaction, but it's the American way of life that the director seems to be deeply critical of in the film. You can even see some of this manifest itself when that specific picture is discussed in "Imamura: The Freethinker" (60:18).

The hour-long 1995 episode of Cinéma de notre temps is an invaluable addition for those interested in Imamura. The unusual format allows him to have conversations and loose interviews with various people, including The Profound Desire of the Gods actor Kazuo Kitamura and an ordinary hair stylist. The topics that come up range from his older brother, an actor killed in the war, to incest on small islands, prostitution and the copious research done before his films (including a visit with "the Akira Kurosawa of 8mm smut films"). Short excerpts from Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman and The Pornographers are shown as well as clips for films not yet on DVD like The Profound Desire of the Gods and A Man Vanishes. I found it to be a fascinating way of getting to know a bit about the great director.

Final Thoughts

This box set collecting three of director Shohei Imamura's most highly regarded films is the most welcome release I've seen so far this year. The supplements are not intimidatingly substantial, but everything included belongs and gives greater insight into an often underappreciated master of Japanese cinema. Pigs and Battleships is just slightly less appealing than the other two films in the set for me, though an ideal starting point for those new to Imamura, but it's nonetheless a forceful blast against the postwar situation in the country.

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