Pigs and Battleships, 1961

A rousing Star Spangled Banner-themed overture accompanies the impressive sight of modern buildings lining the industrial landscape of a postwar Japanese port town in a seeming celebration of the scale of reconstruction achieved under American occupation. The idyllic image of progress through cooperative international unity would, however, be immediately subverted with a perspective shift to a crane shot, bird’s-eye view of the neighboring area to reveal the rundown, bustling alleys of the red light district in the periphery, an area conspicuously teeming with carousing, animated American sailors on shore leave. Using an arsenal of underhanded tactics ranging from aggressive solicitation to distractive, leading chases through labyrinthine alleys, low-level gangsters lure the all-too willing sailors into packed, mob-operated brothels operating from the back rooms of legitimate businesses under the knowing watch of corrupt, shore patrol officers. Among these hired patron corralers is a cocky young man named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) who, as the film begins, proudly boasts to his devoted girlfriend, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) that he has been handpicked by the yakuza boss for an integral position as (appropriately) piggery chief in the syndicate’s new venture of selling livestock on the black market in a convoluted financial arrangement that involves funneling capital from periodic coercion of small shop owners to contribute to euphemistic “charity” collection drives in order to buy food scraps from US battleships to breed fatter pigs. The ecologically perverted food supply chain serves as an implicitly metaphoric view of everyday life under occupied Japan as poor, but hardworking people like Haruko find themselves increasingly marginalized under the crushing weight of lawless, violent thugs seeking to get rich from the economic chaos of a fledgling democracy, or prostituted by their own families to curry favor from the Americans. Chronicled from the perspective of the young couple as they struggle to build a life together, the film reveals the innate, hollow myth of the Japanese postwar modernization model under occupied reconstruction – a deceptive and figuratively aborted bright future illuminated by the gaudy signs of a dystopian, false paradise.

Based on the novel by Kazu Otsuka, Pigs and Battleships is a wry, acerbically blunt, provocative, and irreverent satire on exploitation, greed, instinctuality, lawlessness, and imposition of cultural identity. From the establishing crane shot of the port town that reduces its inhabitants into near-imperceptible, animated dots (in a miniaturized, behaviorally entomological perspective of humanity that the filmmaker subsequently revisits in The Insect Woman), Shohei Imamura creates a caricatured and hyperbolic, yet intrinsically incisive allegory for the turbulent cultural conditions of occupied Japan as the nation’s fragile and uncertain path towards democratization becomes increasingly supplanted by exploitive opportunism and economic anarchy, and the inevitable tide of modernization and globalism (through Westernization) are reduced into ideologically detached pop culture imitation and crass consumerism (note Kinta’s stereotypical American wardrobe that consists of a varsity jacket, baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses, an implicit reflection of his behavioral pattern of imitative conformity). Visually, Imamura reflects the country’s pervasive sentiment of rootlessness and absence of direction through episodic cross-cutting between parallel storylines, fragmented narrative, and off-axis camera angles, often positioned near waist level (a reflection of Imamura’s familiar theme of instinctual human sexuality) or at ceiling height to reflect the characters’ basality. Note Imamura’s implementation of a dizzied, rotating crane shot to depict Haruko’s violation at the hands of a trio of drunken sailors that reinforces the upended – and increasingly estranged – role of the Allied forces as both military conquerors and humanitarian reconstructionists of a ravaged nation. It is this increasingly nebulous and irreconcilable duplicity that inevitably underlies the tragic social dichotomy that the lovers’ represent: a displaced idealism borne of cultural alienation, empty surrogate values, and elusive (and indefinable) human desire.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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