Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Shohei Imamura did not believe in false advertising.

Buta To Gunkan was Imamura's first great success as a personal film following a journeyman stint making Nikkatsu studio programmers. In a French documentary included on the Criterion disc (part of a three-film box set I scored during Barnes & Noble's half-price sale), Imamura recounts a talk with a writer following this film's success. The writer thought Imamura had shown the influence of Akira Kurosawa by working on a large scale, and warned the young director that, while Kurosawa was a great talent, Japan didn't need two of him. I guess you get lumped with Kurosawa if you film a pig stampede. Would Kurosawa be flattered?

Historically Imamura is assigned to a "Japanese New Wave" that seems more analogous to the cohort of U.S. directors who emerged later in the 1960s than to the French "Nouvelle Vague" group. Taking Imamura as representative, this new wave means grittier stories, more revealing of the underbelly of society, told in a more frenetic style. Imamura allegedly saw himself as the antithesis of onetime mentor Yasujiro Ozu, the exemplar of "Japanese-ness" as modesty in matter and manner. I'd almost say he gets as far from Ozu as you can get, but from what I've seen of Japanese genre cinema from the Sixties and Seventies, I know better. Still, for 1961 Pigs and Battleships must have seemed pretty extreme, and even for me it was shocking, for instance, to hear a character say "Hey, bitch!" in English in a film this old.

The movie is a satire of the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. Navy and the Japanese hustlers in the port city of Yokosuka. The protagonist, Kinta, is a young punk yakuza wannabe who gets involved with an organized-crime pig farming operation. The deal is that they get the garbage from the American naval bases at a bargain rate to feed to their pigs, who'll then end up feeding the Americans in turn. This comes with the usual complications, complicated further by the apparently failing health of Kinta's boss, Testuji (the mighty Tetsuro Tanba of You Only Live Twice and a near-infinitude of Japanese movies). Kinta's girlfriend is Haruko, who bristles at the thought of being for all intents and purposes sold to an American sailor and wants to escape the hood by getting a factory job somewhere. As she struggles to break free, backsliding at one point to get drunk and gangbanged by three sailors, Kinta sinks deeper into the muck of petty gangsterism as factions scheme against each other for control of the slop and pig franchises.

Before this I'd seen two of Imamura's later features, Vengeance is Mine and The Ballad of Narayama, neither of which, despite their own extreme moments, really prepared me for Pigs and Battleships. The young Imamura emerges for me as a Japanese precursor of Martin Scorsese in his detailed, often comical rendering of lowlife social routine and in bits of stylistic flamboyance. Watch the scenes of gangsters hanging out, eating and drinking, especially the bit with the barbecued pig that turns out to have eaten a gangland victim, and you might get what I mean.

You might also see it in Imamura's combination of location work and sprawling, convincingly grungy sets. His style also reminds me of his Italian contemporaries who had evolved beyond neorealism toward more personalized or expressionistic styles. It's still rooted in plausible social observation (Imamura thought of himself as a kind of anthropologist) but with appropriate dramatic exaggeration for thematic effect. In simpler terms, there's a lot of grunginess, a good deal of sleaziness, a lot of screaming and yelling, and just as much masterful camerawork, long tracking shots (Scorsese, right?), and eccentric angles like the overhead shot of Haruko's rape and the spinning-camera transition to the aftermath. There's a lot going on on the wide screen to entertain the eye amid the ribald squalor of the Yokosuka slums.

People who like the work of Kinji Fukasaku and similarly-inclined Japanese directors will find many of the same qualities in Imamura, albeit with more moderate doses of violence. He's part of the rougher tradition of Japanese cinema, separate from both the genteel tradition of Ozu or Mizoguchi and the grandiosity of Kurosawa. Right now I'd say he's my third-favorite Japanese director after Kurosawa and Fukasaku, but I'll have a better idea after I watch the remaining films in the box set, 1963's The Insect Woman and 1965's Intention of Murder. I'll keep you posted on his progress.

Criterion didn't bother with a trailer (not that the disc lacks extras), so here's one for the self-styled "Greatest Satire of All Time," uploaded by AsianVirusNet. And remember: Dumbheads Must Die.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, indeed Samuel, this set is an essential keeper for the collection. Engaging review, even if this particular film isn't the best Imamura.....and yes, while Imamura is seemingly the antithesis of Ozu, one only needs to watch Oshima and Matsumoto to learn otherwise.

THE INSECT WOMAN is his greatest film (I see you still have to watch this) and THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA is for me the runner-up. By all means, keep us abreast on the viewing progress.