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Shohei Imamura Retrospective: Pigs and Battleships

December 26, 2007

The Belcourt is giving a series of films from the late genius director Shohei Imamura, one of two men to have one the Palme D’orr award at Cannes twice. Imamura’s influence – his stamp – a kind of gruff, grimey approach to film that swallows the sour whole and spits out the sweet, should be all over modern Japanese cinema. However, for whatever reason, you have to check the pulpy genre films of people like Miike Takashi for evidence that Imamura was Japanese at all. You can find many of the stars of Imamura’s films playing roles in Takashi’s transgresive movies. I hope to review as many of these as I can while the retro is showing.

The focus of the retrospective the Belcourt has selected (with input from yours truly) is on his pre-80’s classics, and begins tonight with the vibrant, entertaining Pigs and Battleships (buta to gunkan).

PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS
1961
B/W
108 min

Pigs is set in early 50’s Japan, not too long after the war and the occupation have left an indelible mark on Japanese society. While the economy was showing signs of the behemoth it would become in the 80’s, a great many people labored in small jobs, eking out a living in squalor, coagulating around the American military bases hoping to siphon a buck or two from the soldiers. Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) is a small time hood trying to get in with the local yakuza, robbing, stealing, and pimping, and doing none of these things very well. His long suffering girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) pleads with Kinta to turn his life around and stop wallowing in the mud, however, he can’t refuse the chance to make it big with one last score, pig farming with stolen pigs fed with food stolen from the garbage of the Naval base at Yokosuka.

Imamura loves telling the stories of a downtrodden, ne’er do well like Kinta, and the legendary comic actor Nagato, with his elastic face and rag doll body is more than equal the task. His performance is one of those masterful comedic works that isn’t showy enough for an award yet extremely difficult to pull off. He makes the dopey Kinta empathetic without making you forget for a moment that he has ownership of the mess he’s in.

The pigs in the title are of course everywhere, not only in the ridiculous finale where pigs bum rush the Yokosuka back alleys, but in the arrogant American military men who patronize brothels one day and arrest the hookers the next, the double crossing Yakuza bosses, and the mothers who pimp their own daughters for an American buck. Rather than play them all as tools of the societal machinations of the time, Imamura calls out these folks as victims of their own imprudent judgment. In the final frames, after the pig shit has hit the fan, there are many survivors, however the only ones who live are the ones who leave.

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