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Review: Pigs and Battleships

26/02/2010

Synopsis:

Gonta is a young hoodlum in post war Yokosuka, Japan. He’s working for a local Yakuza gang that makes money from ruffing up local businesses and using left over food from the American Naval base to feed the pigs in their pig farm. The American sailors, having little to do, spend most of their time sleeping with Japanese prostitutes who hope to one day become the mistress of a Naval Officer. Haruko is Gonta’s girlfriend. Haruko is disgusted with the American sailors just as much as she is with the Japanese who use the American Naval base as a means of making a quick profit. Haruko wants more from life and begs Gonta to run away with her to Kawasaki where her uncle has promised steady factory work.

Who will like this movie:

This is a black and white, 1961 Japanese movie, so its got several things working against it: subtitles and a somewhat “dated” feel. Like many of the director Shohei Imamura’s other films, this is a Japan where Geishas, green tea and golden temples are nowhere to be found. Imamura’s message is also quite clear throughout the entire film: complacency leads to degeneration. Visually the film is very striking taking the viewer everywhere from cramped indoor scenes of messy slum apartments to expansive landscape views. Fans of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Francois Truffaut will find more than enough to enjoy here.

Who will not like this movie:

This is a movie with a clear moral message. It didn’t come across as preachy to me, but I could definitely see how people might criticize the characters as only existing to prove the director’s point. The film is also rather slow in the middle and might leave some viewers bored. The American sailors are played by Russians, who apparently thought that we Yanks sing “row row row your boat” all the time and in every situation. This inattention to detail might come across to some viewers as indicative of the director’s bias. If you don’t like the above two directors or in general don’t like old movies, you could probably skip this one.

A closer look:

I did not like last year’s Japanese film “Departures.” It won best foreign film at the Oscars and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. To me, “Departures” is indicative of everything that is wrong with Japanese cinema today. So many Japanese films and their filmmakers are afraid to say anything, to provoke any response out of the audience. Instead films almost always end with the original conflict having been revealed to have never been a conflict to begin with. No character or action is ever criticized and films always make excuses for the terrible things characters do or the unfair circumstances society puts people in. In short, no one ever looks for anything something more in life because to do so would mean that the characters, and in turn the film, would have to be critical of something or someone. I hate these kinds of movies. I don’t care if I disagree with it, I just don’t want to be betrayed by a film that ends with the message: “and everything that you thought was wrong was just a result of one big misunderstanding.” That might be why I like this movie so much. For that matter, that might be why I like the films of Shohei Imamura so much. They actually have something something.

There is an essay by the Japanese author Ango Sakaguchi called “On Decadence.” It was published in  1946. In it there is a part where he criticizes Japan’s rural culture and the wartime Japanese government’s “back to Japan’s agricultural heritage” movement. To Ango, Japanese rural culture at the time was based in mistrust of others, complacency, and fear of change. He says, “How can we call this culture? …culture exists when there is progress. When people strive to better their lives.” With this essay Sakaguchi established himself as one of the leading, post-war Japanese writers. He was and continues to be a unique among Japanese author because of his scathing criticisms of Japan society and his unwavering commitment to change. Though Imamura’s film comes 15 years later, I believe that echos of that original cry for change, for bettering oneself first uttered by Sakaguchi can still be heard in the vivid character of Haruko.

“Pigs and Battleships” is published on DVD by the Criterion Collection

About the Film:

Directed by Shohei Imamura
Produced by Masaya Nakamura
Written by Hisashi Yamauchi
Starring Jitsuko Yoshimura
Yôko Minamida
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