The Japan of 1947 was one still very much caught up in post-war chaos. In the cities, most particularly, hunger was a major problem. The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Zo wo Kutta Renchu) may have a title that strongly recalls the screwball comedies of the ’30s, but is less slapstick comedy than dark satire in its central premise that a bunch of idiot mad scientists might actually eat a deceased elephant in extreme dedication to “mottainai” waste not want not philosophy coupled with the justification that all is permissible in the name of science.
The elephant is, apparently, the last in Japan and was the childhood friend of zookeeper Yamashita (Chishu Ryu) who brought him all the way over the mountains from Thailand after the war. “Shiro-chan” is very ill with some kind of elephant cold but for some reason the doctors the zoo uses aren’t vets specialising in large, exotic animals but virologists. While they stand around apparently mystified, Yamashita enquires after the professor he usually deals with but is told that, despite being over 60 years of age, he’s currently away on honeymoon after marrying a very young and extremely beautiful woman. Sadly, Shiro doesn’t make it. The professor is saddened to learn of the death from the paper and wonders if it might have been a virus similar to one which attacks hoofed animals like donkeys and horses but is not usually found in Japan (Shiro is Thai after all).
This is relevant because the disease is fatal and contagious but does not usually pass to humans and is only a risk if you come into direct contact with it, like say if you eat meat from an infected animal. No one would eat an elephant though so there’s nothing to worry about. Enter extremely unpleasant mad scientist Wada (Shinichi Himori) who decides that science dictates they must find out if it’s sanitary to eat elephant meat. Though Wada ropes in fellow scientist Baba (Yasumi Hara) with his scientific justifications, he tricks the other two into eating some without telling them what it is. Unforgivably, he even gives some to Yamashita and seems to get a kick out of feeding him his own childhood friend when Yamashita had only come on instruction from his boss to apologise for being over emotional the day before. Yamashita leaves feeling sick after Wada tells him what he was eating for additional effect, but his wife (Chiyoko Fumiya) later remembers a story he told her about fellow elephant drivers in Thailand who ate some elephant meat from an infected animal and were dead within 30 hours.
After hearing Yamashita’s concerns, the scientists begin investigating and indeed find cases of people dying after eating contaminated meat. The only cure is the serum they use to treat the horse infection the professor mentioned, but it seems nowhere has any in stock (the disease is rare in Japan after all). The idiot scientists come to the conclusion they will die in exactly 30 hours’ time and decide to put their affairs in order rather than consult an actual doctor who might be able to help them. This mostly involves trying to explain their foolishness to their wives. Watanabe (Takashi Kanda) is a father of three with another child on the way. He regrets that he hasn’t been present enough in his family life and has failed to adequately provide for his wife who he will shortly be leaving to raise four children alone. Nomura (Toru Abe) meanwhile is an uxorious newlywed constantly worried that his wife (Kyoko Asagiri), who already dislikes Wada for being a bad influence on her husband, will not be able to bear the anxiety of knowing he may soon die. Baba who has only his parents retreats back to his old country home to apologise for not being a better son.
Wada, meanwhile, moans about everyone else’s understandable desires to comfort their wives and families. He criticises Yamashita for trying to excuse himself because he’d rather go home and have dinner with his wife, while mocking Nomura for being a henpecked husband. This might partly be because he has no wife or family of his own and is currently chasing after Tomie (Akemi Sora), a maid at his boarding house, who seems pretty indifferent or even hostile to his attentions, joking that she’d celebrate on hearing of his demise. She eventually agrees to go out with him, but only if he really dies. Other than the wives, no-one quite believes the guys’ bizarre story. Baba’s parents even try to stop him going back to Tokyo when a potential cure is located in case he goes “even more mad”.
In these trying times, the idea that someone might try to eat a dead elephant is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as it might first seem. The act of trying it, however, also plays into the constant critiques of bad or irresponsible science which are a mainstay of films in the immediate post-war era. Wada knows that he can and so he doesn’t bother to think about if he should, spinning tales of Jenner and Koch as if they’re about to make some grand lifesaving discovery. His brush with death does at least begin to humble him as he finally accepts responsibility for the unexpected consequences of his cruel prank, realising that as a man with no wife or family it should perhaps be him if anyone is going to have to make a sacrifice. Finally someone manages to get through to the professor on the phone who tells them they’re all very stupid and haven’t thought of something perfectly obvious that makes all their panicking completely pointless, but at least the surreal 30-hour near death experience has brought out a warmer side of Wada and given a few irresponsible scientists a quick lesson in social responsibility.