contains mild spoilers
Pigs and Battleships, Shohei Imamura’s 1961 absurd portrait of the transformation of a small fishing port during the American occupation is a biting indictment of postwar society. Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), the young would be Yakuza, is excited when he is given responsibility over the gang’s latest asset – a herd of pigs, which they plan to fatten up and sell back to the Americans at an inflated price. His girlfriend, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), is unhappy about his connection to gang and constantly urges him to get a proper job. Kinta, however is unwilling to do this because he doesn’t want to end up like his father, sacked from his long time factory job after becoming ill, or be just another ordinary low age worker living hand to mouth. He seems to want to be something, someone more than that but also seems unable to do anything about it other than follow the gang. He likes the respect and the feeling of being the big man that the gang affords him but is unable to see that it’s illusionary, his status is only that of expendable fall guy in a petty gang of punks. Haruko’s family on the other hand are unhappy with her relationship with Kinta and constantly urge her to become the kept mistress of a wealthy American who’s shown an interest in her. For obvious reasons this isn’t something Haruko is very interested in doing but her mother’s quite violent instructions are becoming harder and harder to defy. Eventually Kinta agrees to go with Haruko to an uncle in another town who might be able to find them work, after he’s completed one final gang related task which he hopes will provide them with money to take with them. However, predictably things do not go to plan and the young couple’s hopes are frustrated.
There are only really two things going on in this town, the pigs and the battleships. Everyone is completely (and quite desperately) dependent on the Americans, they drive the entire town’s economy. The red light district in which the film is set is dedicated to catering for the foreigners on shore leave, and most of the women in the picture are engaging in either casual or outright prostitution, encouraged by their petty yakuza boyfriends or families. Even our heroine Haruko at one point, angry with Kinta but also with her family, decides to give this a go with disastrous results which leads to one of the most masterful shots of the film – the much praised spinning top shot which perfectly articulates the chaos and horror of that terrible situation. The entire town has become like pigs running toward a feeding trough, the final scene of the town’s women running to greet the newly arrived ship, desperate for attention and the material benefits that attention might bring. The only hope in this final scene is with Haruko finally leaving her overbearing mother, defiantly marching straight ahead through this crowd of baying women to start again in a new town, with a proper honest job away from all these corrupting influences.
Pigs and Battleships is a masterful film and in fact quite darkly humourous, highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of Japan or Japanese Cinema. The Blu Ray release from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series is top notch, the picture quality is mostly excellent as is the soundtrack (the disc comes with optional English subtitles which are also very good).
Also provided is Imamura’s debut feature for Nikkatsu, Stolen Desire, the story of a middle class young man (also played by Hiroyuki Nagato) who ends up joining a traveling Kabuki (though leaning more and more towards burlesque elements) group, not so far away from the directors own youthful experiences. This is a more typical Nikkatsu B Movie, a ribald comedy with jokes about randy peasants, vain/difficult actors, misplaced love and the sort of tensions present within a traveling group of artists who’ve hit upon slightly low times. However there are the uniquely Immamura elements that lift this above the rest, the documentary like opening for example and the genuine warmth with with he paints the earthy peasants in all their unbridled vitality. This is the first time this film has been available commercially available with English subtitles in the West and is definitely well worth seeing, its transfer, whilst not quite as strong as that of Pigs and Battleships is certainly very good. There is the odd cut or damage in the frame and the image is certainly a bit softer but it’s still an excellent transfer given the nature of the material. Both releases are accompanied by a booklet containing essays by Tony Rayns about each film which are very useful and informative. This is another fantastic release from MOC, very much deserving of a place in every collection. Fantastic.