Back in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.
As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.
SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.
Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.
Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.
In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.