TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 February 2018
Shoei Imamura’s 1961 film Pigs and Battleships is generally regarded as the film-maker’s first really substantive cinematic excursion – so substantive in fact that the film overran its budget to such an extent that Nikkatsu (the production company) prevented Imamura from making films for two years. Inspired by Imamura’s admiration for Akira Kurosawa’s portrayal of Toshiro Mifune’s low-life gangster, Matsunaga, in Kuroswa’s 1948 film Drunken Angel, as well as reflecting Imamura’s own fascination with the 'lower rungs’ of society (criminals, pimps, prostitutes, etc.), Pigs and Battleships tells the tale of Hiroyuki Hagato’s rather gormless, aspiring small-time gangster, Kinta, and his 'ducking and diving’ in the US Navy-occupied coastal town of Yokosuka. Thus are the 'battleships’ of the film’s curious title explained. In addition to Kinta’s compatriots 'selling off’ their young women to the well-to-do Yanks, Kinta and his gang also make their livings via their pig (pork) farming, plus a little extortion of the locals to raise money when needed. At a metaphorical level, however, Imamura and writer Hisashi Yamauchi are portraying the corrupting (capitalist) influence of US imperialism on Japan – an influence embraced by some locals, whilst being rejected by others.
This polarisation of the indigenous community is one of the most compelling elements of Imamura’s film, encapsulated by Kinta’s volatile relationship with his girlfriend, Jitsuko Yoshimura’s strong-willed, Haruko, who wants to take Kinta off into a life of steady job respectability, and by the pull exerted by Kinta’s elderly father, Kan’ichi (Eijiro Tono), now a fisherman and drunk – Haruko and Kan’ichi are, in effect, kindred spirits reflecting the old ways (before the Americans came). This three-way relationship exists within the nefarious goings-on – played both for laughs and with serious, sometimes brutal, intent – of Kinta and his gang peers and 'bosses’ (of which there is a complex hierarchy) and whose exploits, essentially the need to preserve their pig-farming 'power base’, drive the film’s narrative. Not only was a Kurosawa film seemingly Imamura’s subject-matter inspiration, but the visual ambition and, in particular, the attention to detailed, often quirky, characterisation (particularly within Kinta’s gang) of Pigs and Battleships also appears to have been influenced by the older film-maker. Within the context of what is obviously a male-centric milieu (macho gangsters), the film is also notable for Imamura giving women significant roles - Yoshimura’s Haruko, whose stoicism takes in an abortion and a gang rape, plus Haruko’s sister, Sanae Nakahara's Hiromi, who has taken up with a ‘sugar daddy’, and Yoko Minamida’s Katsuyo.
From a more technical standpoint, the film is an absolute delight which, when blended with the always intriguing characterisations, transfixes this viewer’s attention. Both the location shooting, culminating in the film’s stunning opening and closing crane shots over Yokosuka, and the intimate studio settings for the protagonists’ frugal dwellings are impressive and come courtesy of cinematographer Himeda Shinsaku. The continuous crane tracking shot of Kinta and gang on one of their extortion visits to a taxi business proprietor is a prime example, as is the overhead rotation shot post-rape scene, whilst the film’s framing of characters in shot is brilliantly done and notable during the film’s notorious pig eating sequence. The most famous visual set-piece of all, though, is undoubtedly at the film’s climax, as Kinta attempts to free himself from gangland clutches, unleashing hundreds of stampeding pigs into the centre of Yokosuka – the ‘pigsty’, in effect, coming back to haunt (and obliterate) the town’s corruption. It’s a stunning end to a rather stunning film.
Also included on the excellent Masters of Cinema restored DVD and Blu-ray is Imamura’s 1958 feature debut Stolen Desire. Whilst the earlier film is rather less ambitious – both cinematically and thematically – than Pigs And Battleships, it nevertheless has much to commend it. Stolen Desire follows a ramshackle troupe of theatrical (Kabuki-cum-burlesque) players, struggling to survive financially under the 'direction’ of (again) Hiroyuki Hagato’s 'out of place’ intellectual, Shinichi Kunida, and provides an exuberant tragicomic tale on themes of unfulfilled ambition and conflicted romance. As with the later film, Stolen Desire also reflects the film-maker’s fascination with the sometimes sordid reality of the lives of ordinary working people, here giving us a quite daring mix of earthy humour and unabashed lechery, just what the film’s producers wanted in what was viewed as essentially a ‘B’ movie. The film also initiated Imamura’s practice of portraying strong female characters - Kunida’s love triangle with the troupe’s sisters, Yoko Minamida’s married Chidori and Chidori’s feisty younger sister, Michie Kita’s Chigusa, providing one of the film’s most engaging and touching threads, whilst Minako Katsuki’s determined village girl turned on-stage performer, via the ‘casting couch’, Misako, is also compelling. Kunida, himself, also provides an element of autobiographical(?) content for Imamura – an ambitious, but increasingly disillusioned, artist seemingly destined for higher things – in a narrative thread that is rather under-developed. Interestingly, in terms of mood and style, the film called to my mind some of the early work of Federico Fellini (La Strada, Il Bidone, in particular), thus making Stolen Desire well worth catching.