I find it far easier to admire than to like the daring and the visual compositions in films made by Imamura Shohei (1926-2006), though I liked “Unagi” (The Eel, 1997) after its early grisly bloodletting and was more-or-less charmed by “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge,” his last feature film (2001).
Having apprenticed with Ozu on “Early Summer,” “Green Tea Over Rice,” and “Tokyo Story,” Imamura rebelled against both the upper middle-class subject matter and the unoving camera placement at about one meter from the ground or floor of Ozu. “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself,” Imamura proclaimed, and not only did cameras move a lot in his movies, but they were more likely to look down at people than to look up at them.
Criterion has released three of Imamura’s 1960s black-and-white movies in a box titled “Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes.” Each has legible, grammatical subtitles, very good visual and audio transfers, sage contextualizing bonus features by Tony Rayns (ranging from 12 to 15 minutes in length) and 1990s tv interviews with Imamura.
Imamura’s breakout movie “Buta to gunkan” (Pigs and Battleships) must have been quite a sensation when it opened in Japan in 1961. At the time, prostitutes could not be shown in American movies. The Hollywood production code would also have prevented discussion of abortion, an,d even more, the main character having one.
During the first half of the movie, it seems that the main character is Kinta (Nagato Hiroyuki who had starred in Imamura’s 1958 movie “Endless Desire” and 1959 movie “My Second Brother,” and had a smaller role in Imamura’s “Insect Woman” and appeared in many other movies, including “Twin Sisters of Kyoto”). Kinta is a runty and emotionally immature yakusa. Having seen the movies Imamura made after P&B, I wasn’t really surprised that Kinta’s girlfriend Haruko (Yoshimura Jitsuko [Onibaba]) eventually takes over the movie. (For that matter, the woman who is the most ruthless character also took over his 1958 “Endless Desire.”) Haruko is pressured by her mother to become a “bar girl” like her cousin, “entertaining” Americans from the naval base at Yokosuka. Becoming the mistress of a sailor stationed there is preferable to taking on the drunken, boorish sailors on shore leave, but either kind provides luxury goods that are otherwise difficult to obtain in early-1950s Japan (the story takes place in 1954, I think).
There are lots of real pigs in the movie: a nearly legitimate business of the gang is raising pigs on the food scraps of the American base and Kinta is in charge of the operation. The big, powerful ships are the icon for American might. It is the Japanese whom Imamura regards as the pigs, an anomic herd groveling for slops, living in pigsties. The Americans are drunk and horny and alarmingly large, but it is Japanese yakusa who ruthlessly exploit other Japanese, OK? The characters for “Japan” are emblazoned on the back of the jacket Kinta wears most of the time.
In his insightful discussion in a bonus feature for the Criterion edition, Tony Rayns opines that the movie was not anti-American, or if it is, it has to be considered considerably more anti-Japanese. I’d say the viciousness is all-Japanese, except that there are some Chinese gangsters involved
The yakusa here seem to me very prone to hysteria and very quick to assume the worst, including the malady of Kinta’s boss Himori (Mishima Masao). The women sometimes get worked up, but, like later Imamura female protagonist, Haruko is very resilient. Like the “Insect Woman,” after being raped, Haruko perseveres and prevails. She wants Kinta to go away with her, but he burns out spectacularly.
The yakusa are not glamorized: they grovel to the Americans, terrorize their countrymen and -women, are prone to hysterics, and are woefully incompetent. When they are disposing of a corpse, I told them (I frequently talk to the characters I watch from my couch) tht they needed to weight it down. If I know this, why don’t they? The pigs are sold (by different yakusa to different buyers at the same time) in a panic, and the business turns into an epic disaster in which it is impossible not to laugh at the last bursts of yakusa hysteria.
You might get the impression from what I’ve written that the movie is not subtle. You’d be right. It is pretty amazing, though, filmed in super-high-contrast black and white by Himeda Shinsaku — who went on to contribute his visual flair to “The Insect Woman” and “Intentions of Murder,” the other two early Imamura films packaged by Criterion as “Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes.”
The DVDs of the later two movies have interviews for Japanese tv following screenings of the movies. The P&B One has an hour-long episode of the series Cinéma du Notre Temps (“Shohei Imamura: The Freethinker,” dating from 1995). Imamura speaks about his early films in multiple settings (in subtitled Japanese) for the French tv documentary rather than sitting in a studio with the fawning Sato Tadao. (Two of the segments involve talking at Kitamura Kazuo, the lead in Imamura’s later “The Profound Desire of the Gods.”)
Some of P&B was shot in an elaborate studio set, though as much as could be shot in the streets and hovels of Yokosuka was filmed there. It is difficult to distinguish the studio from the location scenes and difficult to imagine that the final pig chaos could have been managed in either!
©2016, Stephen O. Murray