Original release: January 21st, pills 1961
Running time: 108 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Shohei Imamura
Writer: Hisashi Yamauchi
Cast: Jitsuko Yoshimura, discount Hiroyuki Nagato
When Kaneto Shindo’s black and white horror film Onibaba (1964) was screened at university as part of my Japanese Horror class, I couldn’t help but notice how much emotion actress Jitsuko Yoshimura was able to convey without uttering a single word. The silent but violent existence in a Suzuki grass swamp would have been difficult to understand without her performance. The young actress was actually discovered by Shohei Imamura three years prior, when he cast her in his cynical post-war drama Pigs And Battleships. Yoshimura is just as effortlessly expressive in her debut performance as I remembered from Onibaba, with Imamura no doubt casting her to embody the sole hero and integrity in this world of moral and economic decay.
She plays Haruko, a young barmaid living in the city of Yokosuka just beside a United States naval base. Money is scarce, life is difficult and Haruko’s mother is keen to sell her to an American soldier to be his mistress – just like her sister. Haruko however doesn’t like to use the word “mistress” for this life-style choice – she prefers the word “whore” and resists stubbornly. She does so in spite of her boyfriend Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) being not much more than a simpleton who becomes increasingly involved with a local Yakuza gang. While this naïve youngster tries to become a big shot, Haruko does what she can to force him off the path to inevitable disaster. This is surely not a good time to find out that she is also pregnant.
Although describing the story paints a rather gloomy picture, the tone of the film is that of a wonderfully charming and occasionally farcical comedy. This is no doubt a unique feature in Pigs And Battleships; content and its delivery are at odds as we’re encouraged to laugh in the face of adversities. This is highlighted when the head of Kinta’s Yakuza gang attempts to commit suicide only to change his mind just before jumping in front of a moving train, which would surely be a serious moment if there wasn’t a giant billboard above the desperate man that reads: “Nissan life insurance, live life with a smile”. He also mistakenly believes he has stomach cancer due to a hospital mix-up (one of the more farcical narrative devices in the film), which makes his attempted suicide even more hilarious. Needless to say, the film doesn’t offer a romanticised portrayal of the Yakuza.
Pigs And Battleships’s depiction of Americans is no less flattering than its depiction of the Japanese; there’s plenty of social and political commentary, but the film is neither pro nor anti-American – it merely has a cynical view of humanity as a whole. The bumbling Kinta exemplifies this attitude with his comical misadventures getting a lot of screen time, but he’s just one of the many characters that lack any trace of integrity. Confidence and arrogance are linked to greed and incompetence, which perhaps is a contradiction in the larger context of the economic miracle that followed the war. The film begins by proclaiming the story is “entirely fictional”, but that’s precisely why it feels like it’s in many ways a truthful portrayal of what went on beneath the surface at the time.
There’s redemption and hope, however, that’s brought to us by the aforementioned Haruko brilliantly played by Jitsuko Yoshimura. The film’s famous climax with hundreds of pigs Kinta had been in charge of rampaging through the city is justifiably highlighted by most who talk about Pigs And Battleships. As the animals stampede over gang members, a tightly framed shot juxtaposes the men and pigs – it’s really hard to escape the point Imamura is making here.
As Haruko finds herself alone in the aftermath, she decides to move away from this corrupted city in a glorious final scene. At the arrival of a new American aircraft carrier bringing the latest load of soldiers along with western values and money, dozens of young Japanese women come to eagerly welcome them as Haruko walks through the crowd in the opposite direction. I find it hard to think of another scene that has so much to say while retaining an effortless simplicity at the same time, an impeccable conclusion to what is perhaps an underappreciated Japanese classic.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.