A Mouse-Eat-Mouse World I: “Pigs and Battleships”

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



Endless Desire (1958)


Endless Desire” (Hateshinaki yokubô, 1958) was the first (or third) movie Imamura Shohei directed (after having been an assistant to Ozu). Though I thought it dragged a bit, it seemed like an Imamura black comedy before that was a brand, certainly more than the genial “Stolen Desire,” also from 1958. More black (noir) than comedy, it’s a sort of Japanese “Rififi” with an innocent young romance intercut. And a 1950s jazz score.


The conspirators, when they were in the army at the end of WWII, hid a barrel of morphine, pledging to return to dig it up in ten years. A woman (very much a femme fatale, played by Watanabe Misako) has taken the place of the original leader, a lieutenant, and plays the men against each other and tries to play the innocent local youth, Satoru, too. He is perplexed by her sexual advances.


The climax, following four murders, involves a typical Japanese movie rain deluge, and a partly demolished bridge, followed by a sunny epilogue with Satoru (Nagato Hiroyuki) still flummoxed by his spunky would-be bride, Ryoku (Nozoe Hitomi). (The actors would return in “Pigs and Battleship,” with her again evading him. Cinematographer Himeda Shisaku also became an Imamura regular).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Imamura’s engaging traveling theater troupe rom-com “Stolen Desire”


Nagato Hiroyuki was  likeable in Imamura Shohei ’s second (some sources, including Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors) say first)  movie, “Stolen Desire” (Nusumareta yokujô, 1958) in which he played the lead, Shinichi, a college graduate and nominal director of a troupe of actors (he draws the curtain back and forth and can’t get anyone to rehearse what he wants to do). He not only gets laid, but instead of chasing after a young woman (as in “Endless Desire” before, “Pigs and Battleships” after it) has one catching up and joining him (Chigusa, the (married) older sister of the one he slept with the night before, Chidori).


Not at all a noir, it is sunny for an Imamura film, even with typical Japanese movie heavy rain. The cinematography Takamura Kuratarô’ [Suzuki’s “Tattooed Life”]) was good, if quite different from that of Himeda Shinsaku. There are panoramas of Osaka and of the countryside, as well as extended stage performances (burlesque and quasi-kabuki). There are some Ozu-level shots, but more long shots and more closeups.


There are some humans behaving like pigs, local youths who kidnap and actress after peeping at the bathing actresses, but no femme fatale. The unemployed youths remind me of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” while the struggling troupe is something like (but not tragic) “La Strada.” The frustrated director is much younger and more sexually inexperienced than Mastroianni in “8 ½.”

The studio slapped on the racy title; Imamura’s had been “Tent Theater”). Though Imamura became one of the prototypical figures of the Japanese “New Wave,” this was conventionally shot f a “youth movie.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray



The Third Shadow Warrior (1963)


Though released by Criterion (though out of print), “The Third Shadow Warrior” (Daisan no Kagemusha, directed by Inoue Umetsuge [Cobra], 1963) is not part of its “rebel samurai swordplay” set, but similarly deglamorizes the warrior caste and the bushido (way of the sword) ethos.

A few decades before the triumph of the Tokugawa clan, a peasant (with some samurai lineage) Kyonosuke (Ichikawa Raizo) is delighted by the offer to become a samurai. He is less delighted when he learns that he was recruited because of his likeness to the local lord, Yasutaka (Ichikawa Raizo [Enjo, An Osaka Story, Samurai Vendetta]). He is the third man trained to play the part of the lord, though the one with the greatest physical resemblance (not surprising with the same actor playing the lord and the third shadow).


Lord Yasutaka loses an eye in battle, so his doubles must forfeit an eye each to maintain the resemblance. One balks and attempts to run away. Quickly slain, that leaves two doubles… and after the lord has an arm cut off, Kuonosuke takes his place.


The battle scenes are not great, but aren’t bad with widescreen panache from cinematographer Honda Shozo (Samurai Vendetta, various Zatôichi movies), and Kyonsuke’s engulfment in what was a role he was playing is convincingly hazardous, leading to an ending as bleak as Kurosawa’s later “Kagemusha.”

Ichikawa is excellent in both his roles, and the two leading female roles are interestingly enacted by Banri Masayo (the concubine Kohagi) and Hisuru Takachiho (the princess who will be married to the strongest lord in the area). The former is a romantic, the latter a realist very aware of her status as an asset for her father’s geopolitical security.

©2016, Stephen O Murray

Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland


On 1 July 1916  in Tokyo, Olivia de Havilland was born (to British parents). She, her mother, and her younger sister (later Joan Fontaine) moved to Saratoga on the San Francisco peninsula three years later and the girls went to school there following their parents’ divorce. She went on to the all-women Mills College in Oakland, where she was noticed in a play by the legendary German imperssario Max Reinhardt, who took her to Hollywood to appear in the Warner Brothers’ 1935 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (most notable for James Cagney playing Bottom).

Also in 1935, she was paired for the first of nine times with Errol Flynn, in “Captain Blood.” She was lent to David Selznick/MGM to play Melanie, the woman who gets the man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) that Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) wanted (for reasons that escape me, and is a friend of the man Scarlett should have (and throws away), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in “Gone with the WInd” (1939).

She was very touching in “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), being used by Charles Boyer playing a Romanian in need of an American bride, and was nominated again (she’d been nominated as best supporting actress in GTWT, losing to Hattie McDaniel in GTWT, as Vivien Leigh was acclaimed best actress). It must have been a bitter pill to swallow her hated sister, Joan, winning the Oscar (for Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”) and de Haviland had to wait until 1946 to win her first Oscar, as the mother who gave up her son in “To Each His Own.” After not winning another in “The Snake Pit,” as most everyone had expected, she did win a second (topping her sister’s total) for William Wyler’s adaptation of Washington Square, “The Heiress” (1949). That was probably her best performance, especially not answering the door when Montgomery Clift came calling, along with suffering the nastiness of Ralph Richardson as her father.

After that, her appearances onscreen were few and far between. Bette Davis cajoled her to play the duplicitous cousin in Robert Aldrich’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), the first movie in which I saw her and such other Hollywood Golden Age stars as Davis, Mary Astor, and Agnes Moorhead. I don’t know if it is a “guilty pleasure,” but I still have a soft spot for it. (A DVD special feature includes memories from Bruce Dern, who played the slain lover of Charlotte.) I was also impressed early in my old film-watching career by her 1955 performance as a Scandinavian nurse with Robert Mitchum, Broderick Crawford, Lee Marvin, Charles Bickford, and Frank Sinatra (all as doctors!) in the hospital melodrama “Not as a Stranger” (the first film directed by Stanley Kramer) and with a young Richard Burton in the title role of the 1952 “My Cousin Rachel.”

Not having read her memoir, I suspect she had the most fun playing twin sisters (how could she not draw on her own sister for the part of the bad ‘un?) in “The Dark Mirror” (1946), directed by noir master Robert Siodmak (and in some ways adumbrating her role in “Charlotte”).


De Haviland’s last big-screen appearance was in the 1979 “Fifth Musketeer,” followed by the small-screen appearance in the 1988 tv movie “The Woman He Loved” (not in the title role, which was played by Jane Alexander). She had won a Golden Globe (and been nominated for an Emmy) as the Dowager Empress Maria in the 1986 miniseries “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna” (in which Amy Irving played the title role).

De Haviland has lived in Paris since 1953. She was married to a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, from 1955 to 1979. She is reputedly convivial and considerate, unlike her sister (contrast the accounts of each in Don Bachardy’s Stars in My Eyes).

I revere her legacy and wish her the best, having become the second two-time Oscar-winning actress to reach the centenary mark (Luis Rainer was the first).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The pretty good, the somewhat dubious, and the very dubious Nobel Prizes for Literature

Having spent the week here writing about fiction written by Ôe Kenzaburo has solidified my skepticism that he deserved a Nobel Prize for literature. I think that the first Japanese to receive the honor. Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), was a plausible candidate for the honor in 1968, though were it my choice of a Japanese writer alive during the 1960s I would have chosen Tanizaki Junichiro (who had died before the 1968 award went to Kawabata) or Mishima Yukio. In contrast, I don’t have a stronger contender among Japanese writers, ca. 1994. The Japanese writer recurrently mentioned more recently as a possible candidate, Murakami Haruki (1949-) had published some books that received international attention (A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood) but did not have a large body of work.

From the Japanese contenders, I went to look at the list of all the winners. I have split the ones I have read enough of to have an opinion into three classes (each listed in the chronological order of their award):

Choices I consider plausible or better (inclusion in this category is far from being an endorsement of all of their work, however!)

Rudyard Kipling

Selma Lagerlöf

Rabindranath Tagore

Knut Hamsum

W.B. Yeats

George Bernard Shaw

Thomas Mann

Sinclair Lewis

Ivan Bunin

Luigi Pirandello

Eugene O’Neill

Roger Martin du Gard

Herman Hesse

André Gide

T. S. Eliot

William Faulkner

Pär Lagerkvist

Ernest Hemingway

Halldór Laxness

Juan Ramôn Jiménez

Albert Camus

Boris Pasternak

Ivo Anrdic

John Steinbeck

Jean-Paul Sartre

Miguel Asturias

Kawabata Yasunari

Samuel Beckett

Pablo Neruda

Heinrich Böll

Patrick White

Eugenio Montale

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Czelaw Milosz

Elias Canetti

Gabriel García Marquez

Wole Soyinka

Joseph Brodsky

Naguib Mahfouz

Octavio Paz

V.S. Naipaul

J. M. Coetzee

Harold Pinter

Mario Vargas Llosa

Alice Munro

Svetlana Alexievich

Bob Dylan


Choices about which I am at least somewhat skeptical

Henry Skieniewicz

Maurice Materlinck

Romain Rolland

Anatole France

Henri Bergson

John Galsworthy

Bertrand Russell

François Mauriac

Winston Churchill

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Saul Bellow

Nadine Gordimer

Toni Morrison

Ôe Kenzaburo

José Saramago

Günter Grass

Gao Xingjian

Orhan Pamuk

Doris Lessing

J.M.G. Le Ciézio

Kazou Ishiguro


Bad choices

Pearl Buck

Mikhail Sholokhov

William Golding

Dario Fo

Imre Kertész

Herta Müller

Mo Yan

Patrick Modiano

There are an additional 38 winner about whom I know too little to have formed an opinion of their worth.

By my (generous) reckoning, the Swedish Academy is batting .635 (or .420 if the denominator includes winners from whom I’ve read nothing), but only .333 in the last ten years (not scoring a Swedish poet I’ve never read)

Some of the failures (sins of omission rather than commission) include Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Henry James, William James, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, August Strinberg, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Natsume Sōseki, Rainer Marie Rilke, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Italo Svevo, Bertholt Brecht, E.M. Forster, W. H. Auden, Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, R. K. Narayan, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Pramoedya Ananta Toer Michel Tournier, Chinua Achebe, and Peter Matthiessen.

My prime still-living candidate is Michael Ondatjee, followed by Yu Hua (pictured left to right below). I’d be fine with Louise Erdrich and/or Tom Stoppard winning—after them. If Murakami wins, he’ll go into my second bundle of winners.


Ôe’s “A Quiet Life”


Oe’s 1990 novel, A Quiet Life/ Shizuka-na seikatsu, did not put me to sleep but reading it made me so weary that I took a nap.

I found it hard to believe the narrator’s voice was a 20-year-old virgin girl’s (his daughter’s, here called Ma-Chan). There is the usual (usual at least in recent Oe work) heaving intertextuality, including a Russian film “The Stalker,” Céline, Blake, and an early Oe novel, all of which are reflected on by Ma-Chan. Reading Oe, there is evidence of a shame culture, but he seems to be guilt-ridden (especially as a selfish father), not ashamed. Here he abases himself via criticism he puts in his daughter’s voice. She is very self-critical, too.

Molesters recur, and one is thwarted by the young woman, though the main leitmotif is worrying about and celebrating Eeyore (Haraki’s pooh donkey nickname) in whose charge the handicapped boy is left when her parents go off to California for six months.

The politics (protesting Polish communist Gen. Jariulweski’s visit) seems remote. The parts don’t fit together smoothly, particularly the discussion of “The Stalker.” The sentimentalizing of Céline is plausible for the character, perhaps. But is the whole family so obsessed with Christianity (“spiritual matters” never seem to be Buddhist or Taoist in Oe)? and does his daughter respond to Blake in the same way as her father? Interesting enough, but I’m sure I have many more entertaining and/or more illuminating books I could have read. Even for Japanese morbidity, I have unread Tanazaki books. . .

Oe_kenzaburo_japaninstitut_koeln_041108 (1).jpg

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Discussion of Japanese literature and movies (in translation and subtitled, respectively).