October 1, 2009
In its incarnation as a 21st century, recession-era satire on worker exploitation and the intersection between globalism and geopolitics, Sabu's Kanikosen is an atmospheric, if diluted adaptation of Takiji Kobayashi's Shōwa-era leftist novel. Set aboard an Imperial Navy-escorted (and implicitly, sanctioned), crab canning ship operating near (and often, over) the Russian-controlled Sea of Okhotsk, the film paints a grotesque and wryly comical portrait of inhumane working conditions, classism, and poverty that would sow the seeds of revolution. At the core of Kanikosen's particular melding of polemic and gallows humor is the inclusion of recurring, outdated references that underscore the sense of fiction and staging beneath the film's stylized construction and cultural anachronism: oversized gears reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (a 1936 film that would have chronologically succeeded the film's interwar, 1920s setting) that reflect the role of the worker as interchangeable cogs in the machinery of industrial production; the specter of Soviet socialism that threatens the fabric of the Japanese free market economy collides with the modern day reality of a post-communist, capitalist Russia; the ubiquitous presence of the Imperial Navy - dissolved since the end of the Pacific War - that reinforces the cycle of exploitation between workers and businesses (through their representative management). Polarized to the point of caricature but without the impassioned execution of agitprop, and evading correlation between the economic expansion of an Industrial Revolution created in the midst of increasing totalitarianism with the realities of an Asian tiger-fueled new global economy, Kanikosen ultimately struggles to offer more than well crafted imagery, paradoxically creating an estranged and complacent call to arms.