A stunning portrayal of post-war life in Japan, Shohei Imamura’s wild, chaotic and gloriously funny Pigs and Battleships is a defining document not just of Imamura’s singular style – a deliberate assault on Yasujiro Ozu’s rarefied serenity – but also of his idiosyncratic yet deeply humane worldview, often presented through the dreams, desires and desperation of the people making up the lower strata of his nation’s society. Like a number of Imamura’s films, Pigs and Battleships is populated with criminals, petty gangsters, pimps and prostitutes, but what connects many of the sympathetic characters in his films is not so much their professions or even the bleak social and economic reality that surrounds them, but the vitality and the feisty defiance that they exhibit in this milieu. Imamura’s worldview is dark and deeply cynical, yet his psychologically acute depictions of innately good, if flawed individuals and a playfully intimate style with which Imamura investigates their lives ensure that nihilism is never the greatest wisdom contained within his cinema. It is a quality that makes him, in my view, not just the Japanese New Wave’s greatest auteur, but also possibly Japan’s greatest ever filmmaker.
Pigs and Battleships is set in a Japan that is rapidly in transition, with American forces occupying many Japanese towns, the seaside town of Yokosuka being one of them. As is often the case, it’s not just the external forces that stand in the way of progress. The town we see is teeming with pimps, extortionists and petty thugs who are easily seduced by the lure of easy money offered by the Americans. An innocent, passionate romance blossoms between a well-meaning, yet deluded punk Kinta and Haruko, one of Imamura’s many indelible portraits of strong women fighting against their cruel fate, and is at the emotional core of the film. Kinta treats his poor, working class father with contempt, while Haruko does not respect her family, particularly her sister for selling herself to an American. Kinta wishes to rise above the dregs of his society and become a big shot, while Haruko wishes to escape it altogether.
Kinta idolizes a local gangster, a character who is probably terminally ill and his self-destructive tendencies remind one of a similar character played by Mifune in Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (Imamura has, in an interview cited Drunken Angel as one of the films that deeply influenced him), in his inability to come face-to-face with his own mortality and a bone-headed insistence on putting up the facade of toughness when a little common sense would have served him better. The brief moments in a hospital between the sick gangster and his brother, a worker with a brutally honest tongue are among the film’s funniest as well as the most poignant moments.
The story initially focuses on the daily struggles of these small time gangsters running a pork business and prostitution and Kinta’s dreams of rising up their ranks. Kinta ignores any chance of redemption from Haruko and his heedless bravado and recklessness keep pushing him further down this pointless quagmire of crime and violence. When he does realize his folly, it is, as one would expect, too late. The inevitable end, when it does arrive, is unsurprisingly chaotic, absurd and involves these deadbeats quite literally drowning in their own filth. It is an irresistible denouement, deliriously insane and scathing in it’s cynicism.
And yet that is not the film’s final say on the matter. As the film hurtles towards it’s conclusion, it gradually, and miraculously shifts it’s center from Kinta and his associates to Haruko. As Kinta shows no signs of mending his ways, Haruko’s family selfishly insists on her following her sister’s route and offering herself as a mistress to an American. It is in this tumultuous conflict, between love and rationality, between family and dignity that the film finds it’s most complex truths, a conflict to which Haruko loses her innocence, but from which she eventually emerges a winner. After the carnage of the climax, the film quite rightfully turns it’s attention back to Haruko, for she is the film’s real, perhaps only hero. The final images show her walking a lonely path, away from her family but also opposite the crowd mindlessly embracing the new wave of Western values and money. Equally distant from both the Japanese values of old and this growing trend of Westernization, Imamura challenges us to deny that her righteous, dignified and fiercely individualistic quest for self-realization is indeed the very epitome of progress.