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August 2011

Pigs and Battleships

cast: Hiroyuki Nagato, Jitsuko Yoshimura, and Tetsur� Tanba

director: Sh�hei Imamura

108 minutes (PG) 1961
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Pigs & Battleships

Since celluloid first hit the cutting-room floor, directors have been claiming that their version of 'reality' is more 'realistic' than that of other directors. For some, reality lies in the choice of subject matter and for others it lies in the way in which that subject matter is shot. For my money, claims of cinematic 'realism' are a dog and pony show designed to bring in the punters as true social change can only be conveyed across a number of films by a number of different directors. For example, how does one capture postwar Japanese society's headfirst tumble into capitalist Americana, and its abandonment of the traditionalist values that prompted it to pick a fight with the Allies? Answer: You look at the work of Yasujiro Ozu and the people that reacted against him. People like Sh�hei Imamura.

Imamura began his career as an assistant to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Working on films such as Early Summer (1951), The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), and Tokyo Story (1953), Imamura helped Ozu to construct an image of postwar Japanese life that proved to be hugely influential. Ozu's films combine a literary sensitivity with an elegant formalism that harkens back to traditional Japanese art forms. His films are elegant despite their chaotic subject matter.

Ozu's films are as nostalgic as they are forward looking in so far as even those characters that embody social change do so with an apologetic sense of sadness. For Ozu, the future was best understood with reference to the past but the past could never protect us from the continual encroachment of the present. As strangely progressive as Ozu's films may seem to us now, their traditionalist ethos simply did not fit with how Imamura saw the world. For Imamura, postwar Japan was a squalid collision between self-advancement and self-delusion, a vision that radiates from every scene of Pigs & Battleships (aka: Buta to gunkan).

The film begins with a slow crawl through the underbelly of Yokosuka. Here, American sailors stumble around drunk while Japanese fixers and pimps in Hawaiian shirts try their best to lure them into one of the dozens of neon-lit nightclubs that bear American names whilst promising Japanese girls. In this corner of postwar Japan, it is always shore leave and shore leave means money for the hundreds of bottom-dwellers trying to eke a fortune out of the scraps from Uncle Sam's table. One of these bottom-dwellers is Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), a hustling pimp who runs girls out of a room in his sister's restaurant when he isn't making puppy-dog eyes at the beautiful and sensible Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura).

While both Kinta and Haruko are poor, they both aspire to better things. Haruko hopes to achieve these better things through marriage to a wealthy American while Kinta has thrown his lot in with a local yakuza clan run by the awesomely lazy hypochondriac 'Slasher' Tetsuji (Tetsur� Tanba). Pigs & Battleships is the story of Kinta and Haruko's struggles to reconcile the real with the romantic.

The discontinuity between the demands of the real world and the need to cut a romantic swath through it is painfully evident in Kinta's disaffection with his job in the yakuza. Indeed, despite placing themselves above the fools that work traditional jobs, Kinta's yakuza clan gain most of their income from supplying pork to the American fleet. Unsurprisingly, the romantic image of the sly yakuza struggles to co-exist with the realities of mobbed-up pig farming. Desperate to cut corners and get ahead, the yakuza spend the entirety of the film either trying to secretly sell off the pigs or promising each other possession of the pigs in return for pointlessly killing someone or agreeing to go to prison for someone else. As profitable as pig farming may be, these yakuza simply cannot help but strive for the romantic gesture.

This same tension is evident in Kinta's on/ off relationship with the criminal underworld. In one scene, he is puffing out his chest with pride because some bigwig has tricked him into going to prison and 'becoming a man' and, in another, he is mumbling his discontent and looking for a way out because the promised money and status simply never comes. However, regardless of how empty the promises of the yakuza clan seem to be, Kinta gets lured in again and again.

The tension between the romantic and the real is brilliantly reversed in the story of Haruko. Haruko begins the film as the beneficiary of a fairytale rags-to-riches story of a wealthy American officer who falls in love with a beautiful Japanese girl. However, while this marriage promises to enrich both Haruko and her immediate family, Haruko cannot help but return to the arms of Kinta and her charmingly mundane dream of someday working long hours in a factory.

The film's plot is driven by the characters' continuous yo-yoing between their romantic ideals and their repeated realisation that the world does not work that way and that they need to get serious. This back-and-forth motion is made all the more frantic by the trickle-down nature of Japanese misery. While Imamura depicts postwar Japanese society as a squalid battle for scraps from the American table, he also suggests that greed only increases the further up the food chain you go.

For example, in one scene, a senior member of the yakuza announces that he needs to pay off one of his suppliers in order to retain their access to cheap pig food. So, because the supplier is squeezing the senior yakuza, the senior yakuza squeezes his underlings and the underlings begin to squeeze their juniors and the juniors exert more pressure on the victims of their protection rackets. The more money the people at the top demand, the more misery trickles down the hill and the more misery that trickles down the hill, the more the characters are goaded into romantic actions that will allow them to escape their misery with pockets full of money.

The system of back-and-forth and up-and-down tensions provided by the plot lends Pigs & Battleships an extraordinary energy that frequently erupts into moments of outright slapstick. Consider, for example, the scene in which the yakuza celebrate their 'clever' murder of a competitor by stealing one of the pigs that they are supposed to be raising. However, as unspeakable things are pulled from mouths and plates, it soon becomes clear that the feast to celebrate 'cleverness' has been marred by the 'clever' decision to feed the corpse to the pigs and the 'clever' decision to steal and eat one of those pigs as a celebration of the gang's 'cleverness'. As limbs flail in horror and yakuzas desperately seek places to throw up, the divide between the romantic and the real comes crashing down. Apparently you can be too 'clever' for your own good.

Pigs & Battleships is a film of moments and atmospheres rather than plots and characters. Its characters, although complex and beautifully acted, are seldom allowed much room to breathe in a film that is positively teeming with plot. In fact, this film has so much plot that it can, at times, be difficult to follow. Better then to take a step back from faces and events and focus instead on Imamura's depiction of Japanese society as a vast ocean that teems with life but whose ceaseless churn can kill in a second. Aside from its beautifully frenzied atmosphere, Pigs & Battleships is littered with lovely cinematic moments and camera movements so beautiful that they'll melt your face.

Breaking with tradition, this twin-format Eureka edition of Pigs & Battleships contains no on-disc extras. However, it does contain a whole other film in the form of Stolen Desire (1958), Imamura's first feature. Aside from being brilliant value for money, this is quite an astute piece of packaging on Eureka's part as Stolen Desire is filled with the same horrifying comic frenzy as Pigs & Battleships, but manages to balance it with a devotion to character and plot that make it a far more suitable starting point for those new to Imamura. On its own, Pigs & Battleships is a difficult but engaging film but, when packaged with Stolen Desire, it becomes an absolute must-buy for anyone with an interest in postwar Japanese film.

While I have not seen it, I have encountered reports that this DVD comes with a 'masters of cinema' booklet including stills pictures and essays by the great British critic Tony Rayns.

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