Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan) [DVD]
Director : Shohei Imamura
Screenplay : Hisashi Yamauchi
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1961
Stars : Hiroyuki Nagato (Kinta), Jitsuko Yoshimura (Haruko), Masao Mishima (Himori), Tetsuro Tamba (Slasher Tetsuji), Shirô Osaka (Hoshino), Takeshi Katô (Ohachi), Shoichi Ozawa (Gunji), Yôko Minamida (Katsuyo), Hideo Sato (Kikuo), Eijirô Tôno (Kan’ichi), Akira Yamauchi (Sakiyama), Sanae Nakahara (Hiromi), Kin Sugai (Haruko’s mother)
Shohei Imamura’s raucous gangster melodrama Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan) is the anti-Ozu. After getting his start as an assistant in the 1950s to Yasujiro Ozu, the “most Japanese of directors” whose films revolved around the quiet dissolution of the traditional Japanese family and featured characters of such reserve that they were rarely able to articulate their sense of loss, Imamura broke out on his own, shattering the mold of Japanese gentility by focusing on marginalized characters who lived and died in society’s darkest corners, places in which Ozu’s characters would never step foot or likely admit existed. Pigs and Battleships was produced by the Nikkatsu studio, with whom Imaura had a contract in the early 1960s. At the time, Nikkatsu was staking its future on youth-oriented films designed to draw younger audiences away from the new-fangled allure of television (they had produced a series of rebel youth films in the 1950s known as the “Sun Tribe” series), but even they were a bit perturbed by Imamura’s reckless portrait of the underbelly of Japanese society.
Set in the post-war world in which Japan was still haunted by both the humiliation of defeat in World War II and the lingering presence of the American military (thanks to the controversial renewal of the American-Japan Security Treaty), Pigs and Battleships follows the harried lives of Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), a young man who believes that his future lies in criminal activity with a local low-level gang, and Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), his no-nonsense girlfriend whose only real weakness is her abiding love for Kinta, who she eventually recognizes as a “fool.” These young characters represent the heart of the postwar Japanese generation, born immediately before World War II and raised entirely in a shattered country trying to both regain its international standing and also balance its storied traditions with increasing modernization. Both Kinta and Haruko are thoroughly modern characters, although they set about charting their destinies with vastly different ideals. Kinta is sure that his future entails wealth and power if he can successfully oversee his gang’s new pig-farming operation and also take a fall for a higher ranking gangster, while Haruko is more down to earth and wants him to leave with her to take an unassuming, but fundamentally secure factory job in a neighboring city.
The story, penned by first-time screenwriter Hisashi Yamauchi, takes place in the port town of Yokosuka, which is overrun by American Navy shipmen who are stationed there (hence the “battleships” of the title, which are anchored just off-shore as constant reminders of the foreign presence). The fact that the majority of the action takes place in the seedy red light district (meticulously recreated on a studio back lot) suggests that Imamura’s goal may be to implode polite assumptions about the Japanese character with his depictions of gangsters, prostitutes, pimps, and less-than-ideal parental figures. However, he also has his way with the American character, depicting the servicemen on R&R as insolent, obnoxious boors looking for sex and booze and little else (it is not surprising, then, that the film was embraced in Europe as a particularly sharp example of unimpeded anti-Americanism).
Yet, the tone of the film is so consistently impolite in both its anthropological observations and overt symbolism (note the title, which sardonically skewers both the corrupted Japanese and their American corrupters) that you can’t quite finger it as attacking any one group; rather, it paints a general portrait of cultural unease and international confusion, highlighted by moments of aesthetically overdetermined violence (particularly a gang rape depicted via rapidly spinning high-angle shots and an incredible climax that finds one character randomly machine-gunning everything around him while a hoard of pigs stampedes everything in their wake). Imamura also refuses to romanticize any of his characters: Kinta’s idealized view of the criminal life is ultimately fatal and his gangster compatriots are alternately cowardly, incompetent, or so egregiously self-absorbed that you can’t help but laugh at them. The only character who displays any real inner strength and vitality is Haruko, which is perhaps why she must endure so much hardship to earn the right to be the last one standing in the final reel.
To be sure, Pigs and Battleships is a wildly uneven film, mixing dark comedy with melodramatic pathos with such wild abandon that it’s hard to tell if Imamura is in charge of the material or if the material is in charge of him. Given that fact that he would go on to become one of the leading voices of the so-called “Japanese New Wave,” breaking through conventional assumptions about what Japanese cinema could say about its native country, that it is best to see the film as a formative moment in the pioneering director’s oeuvre, displaying in rough, nascent form the anti-establishment themes and conflicted understanding of outsiders that would come to define Imamura’s work for the next three decades.
|Pigs and Battleships Criterion Collection DVD|
|Pigs and Battleships is available exclusively as part of the three-disc “Pigs, Pimps, and Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes The Insect Woman (1963) and Intentions of Murder (1964).|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$79.95 (box set)|
|Release Date||May 19, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion has given all three films in this box set new high-definition transfers from what appear to be the best possible elements. Both Pigs and Battleships and The Insect Woman were transferred from their original 35mm camera negatives, while Intentions of Murder was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. All three films were also put through the MTI Digital Restoration System to remove virtually all signs of age and damage in the form of nicks, dirt, and speckles. Given that the three films were made one right after the other at the same studio, they each have about the same level of technical polish, even though each has a slightly different look. While all three films were shot in black and white, they have varying levels of contrast and evidence of fading, with Pigs and Battleships looking the “grayest.” Intentions of Murder is the darkest of the three films, with plenty of blacks that are nicely rendered with only minimal traces of grain. Detail in each transfer is decent, but not particularly great, resulting in images that appear slightly soft. The original monaural soundtracks were also given careful transfers and digitally restored, giving us sound that is relatively clean, crisp, and lacking in ambient hiss or pops.|
|There are two supplements on this disc. The first is a 17-minute interview with film historian Tony Rayns, who offers fascinating background information on both Imamura and postwar Japanese society that helps to situate the film in its cultural and industrial contexts. Also on the disc is a 1995 episode of the French television series Cinéma de notre temps dedicated to Imamura. Unfortunately, the episode is needlessly abstract and vague, giving us footage of Immaura talking with friends and colleagues that focuses on the back of their heads and unidentified clips from his films. Longtime fans of Imamura’s work will enjoy it, but first-timers will find it quite confusing.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection