Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan) (1961)

Pigs and Battleships (Buta to Gunkan) first published by Little White Lies

Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan), the fifth feature to have been made for Nikkatsu by Shôhei Imamura, opens with a clash of sound and image that sets the tone for the entire film. As we see the Japanese studio’s logo, the drum roll on the soundtrack instantly recalls the famous Fox Studio theme – and then, as we see a montage of views from the Japanese port city of Yokosuka, we hear a jazzy march that recognisably riffs on the tune of The Star Spangled Banner.

So while this film may trace the tragicomic downward spiral of young ‘two-bit hoodlum’ Kinta (Imamura regular Hiroyuki Nagato) as he struggles both to ‘become a man’ and make his fortune, it is also an allegory of a nation trying to find its own identity under the post-Occupation Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan (or anpo joyaku).

Kinta is a naïve low-ranking yakuza who imagines that he is ‘going to be a big-shot’ after he is put in charge of his gang’s potentially lucrative pork business – but just as the pigs require food discards acquired (with big bribes) from the nearby US Naval Base, everyone here, from Kinta right up to the gang’s ‘big boss’ Himori (Masao Mishima), is shown to be a porcine bottom feeder, living off American scraps and running on empty.

As it becomes more and more likely that Kinta will be made the fall guy for a gangland murder, a series of subplots dramatises the impossibility of his predicament. If he takes the rap and goes to jail, the gang promises him rewards and respect upon his release – but the story of the murdered man Mr Harukoma, himself a one-time gang member just returned from a prison stint, vividly illustrates the rather different fate that Kinta should probably be expecting down the line.

If Kinta leaves the gang and tries to go straight or to run his own brothel in Yokosuka (where he can ‘squeeze money out of dumb Yanks’), then like the cab company owner Yajima he will find every last yen that he makes being extorted by gangs, and probably, again like Yajima, end up killing himself. And if, as his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) would like, Kinta leaves Yokosuka altogether to work in a factory, he faces becoming a low-income ‘wage slave’ who, like his alcoholic father, will be summarily booted out of his job the moment he falls ill.

Not that the ‘cool’ life of a gangster is free from illness. Kinta’s immediate boss Tetsuji (Tetsuro Tanba) suffers from a constant stomach ailment that jeopardises not only his status with the gang’s higher-ups, but possibly also his life. Tetsuji’s hypochondria figures a more general malaise in Japanese society – even if the film ultimately suggests that this malaise need not be as terminal as it first appears. This is typical of Imamura’s vibrant approach to dramatic metaphors.

If the treacherous yakuza embody the very worst dog-eat-dog attitudes, then Imamura will show them inadvertently eating the very pig that had earlier been fed on the corpse of their victim Harukoma – and choking on the dead man’s false teeth. If all these characters are swinish in their appetites, idiocy and inhumanity, then Imamura will find a way, in his over-the-top climax, to depict the whole of Yokosuka’s central strip overrun by real pigs. And if Kinta seems to be flushing his life down the toilet, then that is exactly what we will see him doing in the end.

In this demimonde where everything is ruled by desperation, Kinta’s seemingly boundless optimism is certainly misplaced – but Imamura does locate an alternative to Japan’s American parasitism in the characters of  Tetsuji’s honest, hard-working brother Kikuo (who preaches the communal building of a progressive, moral society) – and ultimately in Haruko, who turns her back on her American sugar daddy and is last seen leaving Yokosuka, even as a train-load of young Japanese women immediately arrives to replace her, giggling and waving at the American marines with whom they all hope to partner up. If Japan, the film suggests, wishes to find its independence, like Haruko it will have to start swimming against the tide.

Pigs and Battleships, however, is not some dry anatomisation of Japan’s post-war ills (like, say, Nagisa Oshima’s bitter Night and Fog in Japan, made just a year before), but an energetic genre piece, full of rampant criminality and doomed romance, which remains rambunctiously entertaining from beginning to end. In one scene, Sakiyama, the Japanese-American mediator between the Japanese yakuza and the US Navy, complains that while he came over to help the Japanese understand Americans like Jefferson and Lincoln, in fact ‘they are only interested in our gangsters and beat generation.’ Imamura is certainly interested in politics – but he also gives his Japanese audience exactly what it wants.

© Anton Bitel