Thursday, October 6, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (1961)

Pigs and Battleships


Starring
Hiroyuki Nagato as Kinta
Jitsuko Yoshimura as Haruko
Sanae Nakahara as Hiromi
Tetsuro Tamba as Tetsu
Kin Sugai as Hiromi's Mother
Eijiro Tono as Kinta's Father


Directed by Shohei Imamura
Produced by Kano Otsuka
Written by Hisashi Yamanouchi
Cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda
Lighting by Yasuo Iwaki
Sound by Fumio Hashimoto
Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi
Art Direction by Kimihiko Nakamura


Pigs and Battleships is all about average people trying to survive and maybe even thrive in a port city in Japan sometime not long after the end of World War II. It's mostly about low end gangsters and their marginally more legit friends, lovers, and relations and how they navigate an economy heavily dependent on vice and the military presence of a foreign power. Everyone seems teetering on the edge of criminality, or maybe just insanity. Some dream big, and kid themselves that they'll have spacious homes like the foreign big spenders with their houses on hilltops, or maybe like the U.S. gangsters they see in newsreels.

Postwar Japan: the port city of Yokosuka. Big U.S. military presence. Lots of American sailors on the prowl, neon lights, prostitutes, and no air conditioning. Everybody is busting their ass to move up in the world, rebuild the nation, and, for the ladies, maybe even bag an American husband. But guys and gals alike all want some piece of that American dream. As one of the con men in this movie takes note, all the Japanese youth of the day are enamored with American gangsters and the Beat Generation, despite his best efforts to spread the gospel of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

But if you can't be an American, you may as well profit off 'em. A young, wannabe yakuza named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) touts for a cathouse run out of the back of a tiny restaurant. With playful zest, he backslaps and browbeats the horny sailors into the cramped, smoky, improvised brothel space filled with bunk beds and young women. Kinta's girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) works with her mother (Kin Sugai) and older sister, Hiromi (Sanae Nakahara), in the restaurant part of the operation, and occasionally gets a big pay day when she goes on dates with Americans. Haruko hasn't slept with any of these guys, yet, as she feels loyalty towards Kinta, but the pressure to do so is intense. Haruko's mom and Hiromi both want her to put out to increase the family's revenue. Haruko isn't necessarily put off by the idea of prostitution, but she's in love with Kinta, and she's beginning to grow tired of having other people tell her what to do. She sees herself as eventually saving up enough money to move herself and Kinta to Kawasaki, where the young couple could get jobs in one of the new factories being built there.

 But Kinta feels loyalty to his yakuza comrades. In particular, he is loyal to his direct boss, Tetsu (Tetsuro Tamba), who happens to be dating Haruko's sister, Hiromi. Tetsu is probably the most high strung yakuza in cinema history. He is constantly concerned for his health, and has a medievalist's approach to medicine. Tetsu monitors the color and volume of the bile he coughs up every morning. Tetsu and Kinta and other members of their gang decide to move away from narcotics trafficking, and to focus on a scheme to sell pork to the American military base. To that end they decide to focus their business on pig farming and prostitution, with supplementary forays into protection racketeering. But these dimwitted yakuza find their ambitions complicated by the machinations of other criminals and distrust and divisiveness within their own ranks.

Kinta is not the top dawg in his gang, and he is certainly not the brightest, but he is the most sincere. He throws himself into whatever the gang wants him to do with surpassing zeal. Other gang members take note of this, and see a way to exploit him. Kinta goes along with a scheme to take the rap for a murder charge for someone higher up in the criminal hierarchy on the promise that once he's done his stretch on the inside he will have greater status as a yakuza. Kinta is clearly a fool, and yet I found his sincerity believable. Kinta has a conception in his mind of what the gang is that has little to do with the stark reality. Kinta is loyal to this conception, this fantasy, and that makes him a dreamer. It's hard not to like a dreamer, you know? I found myself wondering what the gang would've been able to accomplish if Kinta had been put in charge instead of the depressive hypochondriac Tetsu.

The central conflict within the movie exists between the lovers Kinta and Haruko. It is not so much a moral conflict, as in virtue versus vice, as it is a kind of existential conflict between agency and dependency. Both Kinta and Haruko are pragmatists to some degree. They both believe in doing whatever is necessary to survive and get ahead in life, but they have conflicting visions of how to achieve these ends. Kinta believes in his gang, and their enterprises: pig farming, racketeering, pimping. Haruko believes in herself, and in her ability to make her own  way in the world. Haruko wants to escape being dependent on the presence of the American military, and the oppressive family which would deny her the chance to strike out on her own. They're both pragmatists, but they're both dreamers as well.

Visually, Kinta and Haruko are often shown within Imamura's glorious black and white widescreen compositions as being enveloped by the various gritty, lived-in environments of Yokosuka, and also being crowded by the other characters, family, yakuza, and sailors. Kinta, especially, is often marginalized within the framing, appearing in the background while foreground characters discuss plans and schemes which Kinta has no choice but to follow along with or help execute as a loyal flunky.

Now and again, Kinta and Haruko have scenes together, and the two seem to dominate the scenery, sometimes towering over the camera, almost as though their passion for each other and their crazy dreams of future prosperity threaten to elevate them out of the gritty, quirky realism of Imamura's movie and into the realm of Hollywood melodrama. But even these scenes are off kilter, and often have resolutions which undercut the romance. Haruko drags Kinta away from his yakuza buddies to a hilltop and exhorts him to ditch the gang and make a new, legitimate life, but Kinta resists. Passionate words are exchanged, and the young lovers are framed against beautiful landscapes. But at the end, Kinta goes running down the hill, stumbles, and falls on his ass. Kinta picks himself up, though, keeps on running, and you gotta admire the kid's moxie.

Imamura's movie is highly eclectic, mixing in elements of yakuza gangster movies, farce, romance, realism, and satire, but he manages to make it all hang together with a dynamic sense of editing and pacing. In another director's hands this same material would've been grim and plodding, but Imamura transforms it into a kind of adventure but without toning down the grit and grime.There are quite a few rapid turns of plot and motivation as well, and it may require a couple of viewings to keep track of what all happens. The tone is frequently comical, and yet many serious, disturbing things transpire. It all builds to a crazed, slightly surreal climax wherein the pent-up rage and frustration of various characters finds release. Indeed, the ending seems to be somewhat influenced by what all these characters picked up watching American gangster movies, almost as though conflicting inner visions of what they were all aspiring to become in life were unleashed and began to trample each other . . .

Pigs and Battleships Trailer:

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