Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Review: Pigs and Battleships (1961)

Pigs and Battleships
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring: Hiroyuki Nagato, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Masao Mishima
Grade: A-

Written for Subtitled Online:

It might not come as a surprise to reveal that the pigs in Shohei Imamura’s curiously-titled “Pigs and Battleships” are as metaphoric as they are literal, their use as a ruse for shadier business a more-than-scathing attack on the invasion of Americanised ideology within Japanese culture. The country’s well-documented tense relationship with World War II enemy America was an ultimately destructive affair, culminating in the now-infamous atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Made in 1961, “Pigs and Battleships” depicts a period of eerie aftermath and cultural rebirth within Japanese society, and its adoption of a way-of-life which cultivates corruption, greed, and disloyalty.

As U.S. G.I. soldiers stop off at the Japanese harbour town where young, plucky Yakuza member Kinta (Nagato) resides, local women are plied with booze and pimped out by the authorities. While Kinta remains in charge of the local pork farming business, this is largely a cover for the power-political schemes of the town’s mobsters, who are vying with rival gangs and trying to keep officials sweet. Difficulties arise when the corpse of a local businessman is washed up on the shore, forcing the gang to deal with investigations into his disappearance and manage conflict within their organisation.

Despite Kinta’s enthusiasm for his peers his girlfriend Haruko (Yoshimura) struggles to deal with the dangerous nature of the world he has entered into, and encourages him to get a stable, straight profession. This disagreement causes a fierce rift between the couple, forcing them to escape their relationship in extreme ways, and casting into doubt whether this is the right place for them to begin their life together. Kinta himself learns that being part of the Yakuza has its distinct downfalls as well as its benefits, as many of his colleagues are keen to see him sacrificed for the greater good of the unit.

From the outset Imamura presents a glamourised impression of this town, which, with its cultural hybridism and willingness to embrace commerce, feels like it should be on a border between two states somewhere. There’s an element of Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in the way brass accompaniment and sweltering, smoky streets dominate the films’ opening, demonstrative of the thriving success of capitalism. Kinta’s pride in an early scene stresses the self-sufficient and morally-shy philosophies of a community reliant upon mutual exploitation, and a crisis of identity which reflects the director’s commentary on the disarray of the country’s hierarchal workings. These residents are governed by foreign money, and he does little to hide the characters’ motivation to aspire towards American values, caught up in a cycle of self-preservation and armed with a thirst to succeed.

“Pigs and Battleships” balances the crime and romance within the narrative supremely and shrewdly manoeuvres the journey of its characters to align with grander political concerns. Partly due to the off-kilter, occasionally infantile performance of leading man Nagato, Kinta isn’t always so relatable as a protagonist, but although he doesn’t encounter many overt threats in the film we still care about his tempestuous attachment to the feisty Haruko. Jitsuko Yoshimura, as a woman going out of her mind with worry and disillusionment at the people around her, is such a fascinating Actress, and in a similar way to Janet Leigh in “Touch of Evil” captivates by being the victim that never learns to keep quiet, die down, or give in. At some point in the midst of the film Haruko becomes its emotional centre, her fragility mirrored in the film’s sharp decline towards hysteria and unrest. As she grows to be consumed by resentment and unworthiness “Pigs and Battleships” is best served from her perspective, its second half a more sprawling story of Noir cinema’s easy dismantling of perceived strengths and friendships. A subplot involving Yakuza kingpin Sakiyama also stresses the feigned sense of grandeur that comes with the luxury of power.

“Pigs and Battleships” admittedly piles on the metaphors too flagrantly (particularly towards the end) in a finale that echoes the best and worst of Kubrick, opting for cavalry band-style music to accompany catastrophe in the way that Mickey Mouse Club booms out in 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket.” It’s a minor foible since the script exhibits such a breadth of allure – from intricate melodrama to fiery romance to ironic genre subversion – that the aesthetics going on around it merely form another layer to the avalanche. In aping a Noir structure Imamura approaches the common issue of small-town trappings with authorial verve, offering a spectrum of his setting which veers between appealing mystery and strenuous squalor.

While many of the characters on display here are essentially on a hiding to nothing, the same cannot be said for this film’s ambitious creator. “Pigs and Battleships” landed in Japanese cinemas at the time when the French New Wave and Italian Neo-realist movements were burgeoning, and Imamura’s study of Nationalism and its implication on society bears its own unique stamp, too. Occasionally overcooked, it’s nevertheless an astounding product of impassioned, effective, and thoughtful filmmaking, and finds its own pocket of time and relevance within this auteur’s carefully drawn-out filmography.

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