The title alone screams incongruity. Shohei Imamura’s 1961 black-and-white caper movie Pigs and Battleships bursts with the confusion and exuberance of a cross-cultural encounter. In its lively portrayal of enthusiastic Japanese locals welcoming the U.S. Navy on R&R to the former fishing village of Yokosuka, the film holds true to the stereotype of Americans as big, dumb, pleasure-seeking oafs. But it thoroughly capsizes the idea of Japanese people relishing only the quiet dignity of Zen gardens, the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, haiku poetry, and filial piety. With this, his breakthrough film and fifth feature, Imamura, a leader of what would retroactively be called the Japanese New Wave, sets out to debunk the myth of the self-effacing, culturally refined, and socially ultrapolite Japanese, as characterized in the films of his former boss and mentor, Yasujiro Ozu.
Imamura’s interest lay in the contradictions of the Japanese character, and he came to take a near anthropological approach to the subject, one that couldn’t be further from Ozu’s decorum. This fascination first truly emerged with the depiction of the two young protagonists of Pigs and Battleships. Haruko (played by newcomer Jitsuko Yoshimura, who would also appear in Imamura’s next film, 1963’s The Insect Woman) works in a tiny bar in Yokosuka’s entertainment district and is recklessly in love with Kinta (played by Hiroyuki Nagato), who thinks his future lies with a gang of murderous extortionists starting a pig-farming business to feed the hungry U.S. military. Kinta, with his flashy silk dragon jacket and his bomber pilot sunglasses, is no match for the moral solidity that underlies Haruko’s lipsticked facade. Both endure poor role models in their own families: Kinta has no mother, and his Japanese navy veteran father (Eijiro Tono) is a drunk who goes out fishing in his dinghy when he’s awake. Haruko has no father, and her mother provides for the three younger siblings with the allowance Haruko’s older sister gets from her American lover. Haruko suffers constant pressure from her mother and sister to move up similarly in the world by becoming an American’s mistress.
It is Haruko’s indomitable will to escape the sordid life around the base that energizes the whole film. She takes on Kinta, her sister, her mother, an unwanted pregnancy, and even a clutch of drunken American sailors. Though she suffers severe injuries to her girlish innocence, she comes through it all with the self-assurance to call her lover a fool and to strike out on her own for a new life in the factories of Kawasaki. In the battle between dignity and degradation, Haruko wins. This is the moral dilemma that never would have appeared in an Ozu film, where characters move within a strictly confined middle-class world as if there were no such thing as abandonment or exploitation by family members, and the greatest challenge in life would seem to be marriage or the passing of an elderly parent.
Pigs and Battleships takes place a decade after the end of the post–World War II Allied occupation of Japan. But the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is still supplying thousands of non-Japanese military and adjunct civilian entrepreneurs, who feed on the thriving U.S. military bases scattered all over the archipelago for the protection of Japan and the rest of the Far East from the threat of communism. A key factor in Japan’s economic recovery from the devastation of the Pacific War, the U.S. military proves in Pigs and Battleships also to be a fabulous target for exploitation by the low-level Japanese gangsters known as chimpira—a cut below the yakuza gangsters of movie fame—who prey upon the ordinary people of Yokosuka as well.
Although yakuza have appeared in Japanese films since the earliest talkies, and the Japanese movie industry itself began with heavy yakuza participation—they controlled the fire wagons, and thus elicited protection money from all productions in the days of highly flammable nitrate film—the genre bearing their name would not reach true fad stage until later in the 1960s. Imamura anticipates this trend while preemptively undercutting it at the same time. The pseudofamilial relationships are here: Tetsuro Tamba plays Tetsuji, a dyspeptic thug with the Lotus Sutra tattooed on his back, who drinks and gambles late and lives off his girlfriend, but the others in his gang call him by the gangster title aniki, or “big brother,” denoting his caretaker role. There is casual talk throughout the film about novice gangsters like Kinta earning renown and bonuses by standing in for criminal superiors and going to jail in their place. Portraying Tetsuji as a lazy hypochondriac and a craven coward allows Imamura many a comedic moment and thoroughly undermines any glamour an impressionable young man might seek in the gangster life.
While the chimpira swagger and brawl, another element of postwar underworld control appears quietly in Pigs and Battleships: the opportunists, now with privileged status, from countries Japan conquered and lost again on its way to defeat in 1945—the Koreans and the Chinese. A madam fumes over the loss of her establishment after a police raid. She stomps out at the appearance of the landlord, claiming she “can’t stand the smell of garlic anyway,” indicating that he is Korean (traditional Japanese food uses no garlic, while garlic flavors many Korean sauces and pickles). Other powerful background figures include two Chinese. Tetsuji gives a stack of money to the black-clothed bartender Wang to finish him off because he is too weak to commit suicide. Wang’s colleague Chen is a local financier of shady deals, but even he balks at doing business with the biggest crook of all: the Hawaiian Japanese called Sakiyama, who dupes everyone from hardened gangsters to Haruko’s sister. Imamura portrays the white Americans and the hungry Japanese as equally gullible in the gambits run by these slightly more sophisticated con artists, with their other-Asian flair. In many a later film, Imamura would further explore Japan’s relationship to the rest of Asia, most notably in his 1971 documentary series In Search of Unreturned Soldiers, which sought out those Japanese who turned their back on Japan after the close of the Pacific War, including the young country girls who were sold by their families as prostitutes for the Japanese military in Southeast Asia. An important element of Imamura’s New Wave contribution is his willingness to show the ugly racism and classism of Japan’s much-touted homogenous society.
With its raucous visual and auditory effects and its strong, down-to-earth women, Pigs and Battleships was a turning point for Imamura, as it showcased his full-blown distinctive style. Here he is no longer sentimentalizing downtrodden youth or romanticizing itinerant actors, as he did in his earliest works. He combines the backstreet neorealism of Shinsaku Himeda’s mobile camera work with a caustic humor all his own, buoyed by the parodic bombast of avant-garde composer Toshiro Mayuzumi’s score. No other Japanese New Wave director has the peculiar boisterousness of Imamura, perhaps because Imamura suffered longer than anyone else in an actual apprenticeship under Ozu, assisting on three of the most successful films of this dean of Japanese cinematic gentility, Early Summer (1951), The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), and Tokyo Story (1953). While other New Wave directors were attempting to rebel against or outdo Akira Kurosawa, who was in fact an anomaly in Japanese as well as world cinema, it was the severe classicism of theme, camera, dialogue, and gesture in Ozu’s work that was the icon for Imamura to tear down. The bawdiness, greed, selfishness, and just plain foolishness of Imamura’s characters form a welcome counterpoint to the austere righteousness of Ozu’s modest women and taciturn men.
And Imamura took a sharp turn away from Ozu’s penchant for static-camera establishing shot, medium shot, medium close-up, reverse angle dialogue shot, and so forth. In Pigs and Battleships, Himeda’s camera tracks and dances for Imamura, weaving around corners and through pier pilings, looking down from ceilings and close into lovers’ eyes. Actors rarely sit or stand still while speaking to each other. They eat and drink, duck and run, feed pigs their slop, change and launder their clothes, and climb trucks, buildings, mountains. The gesture and cinematography are anything but contemplative, and therein lies one of the great strengths of the Imamura protagonist: he or she acts on visceral impulse, not on philosophical assessment of a range of options. Imamura’s 1960s New Wave films are thus bubbling with drive.
“New Wave” was a commercial label borrowed from France. By using it, the Japanese studios hoped to attract young viewers to the lower-budget films they were allowing fresh directors like Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige Yoshida, and Masahiro Shinoda to make. Television soap operas were gobbling up the middle-class family viewership, so the studios were desperate to find a new theatergoing audience. It’s true that these directors used handheld cameras and other documentary techniques from the French and the Italian neorealists of the 1950s, but the content of their dramas was specifically Japanese, hard looks at new aspects of contemporary society. Imamura’s observations were among the most trenchant and humorous. In his films, everyone, like the newly recovered postwar Japan about to host the 1964 Olympics, is out to make something of himself by throwing his full energy into his appointed task.
For Kinta, the goal is to find the money to have a nice place, so he determines to do whatever it takes to raise pigs and be a good gang follower. His simple plans are foiled by the treachery of his gangster colleagues and the unexpected pregnancy of his girlfriend. His dismay at the betrayal leads him to carry out the film’s climactic pig rout and riot—a unique cinema experience: a country where guns were outlawed and hog raising was historically an unclean profession had never seen a machine-gun-wielding protagonist or an urban stampede of hundreds of killer pigs.
For Haruko, energy is focused on making Kinta understand that life with her is what he really wants. But her secondary aim is equally strong, and in this she resembles the later heroines of Imamura’s The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder (1964). She will try and try again, with all her might, but if her man cannot follow her lead to a secure, if not wealthy, life, she will go on alone. As fascinated as she may be with dance parties, Coca-Cola highballs, and pretty full skirts with crinoline petticoats, when the high life turns out to be empty and her man proves to be a fool, she is perfectly capable of stealing her mother’s ill-gotten money, wiping off her lipstick, and catching the train for the nearby factory town where she can earn an honest living. In the following films as well, the heroines take sometimes bizarre routes to secure what may appear to be ordinary middle-class lives. Their values are always grounded in work for the security and preservation of the family, love for their men, as long as their affections are returned, and a certain striving for respectability that the men often lack—Kinta being a notable example.
Imamura has given images to the world of cinema that are found nowhere else. Neither the old-school Japanese directors nor the other New Wave youngsters could possibly have dreamed up scenes like Imamura’s sea of pigs trampling gangsters to death in the back alleys of Yokosuka under machine-gun fire. Or an expressionistic attack on a young Japanese woman, viewed from the ceiling with a spinning camera, by three drunken American sailors singing, of all things, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Or a crowd of crones in kimonos watching the aerobatics of American fighter jets while parade music blares, and commenting appreciatively that the Japan Self-Defense Forces have neither planes nor pilots with that kind of flair—this only sixteen years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the decimation of Tokyo by B-29 bombers. The outrageousness of the image, the music, and the dialogue creates an unforgettable picture of a Japan that hates its subservience but will use it to get ahead: a rich, rushed culture pushing forward on adrenaline and a logic all its own.
Audie Bock is the author of Japanese Film Directors and Naruse: A Master of Japanese Cinema and the translator of Akira Kurosawa’s memoir, Something Like an Autobiography. She was assistant producer of the international version of Kurosawa’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner Kagemusha. She has taught on Japanese cinema at colleges and universities around the United States and at the Japan Film School in Kawasaki, founded by Shohei Imamura. Currently she lives in Hayward, California.