A stampede of pigs careens its way down the streets of Yokosuka, smashing, crashing, bashing their way through crowds of prostitutes, pimps, and military police. Behind them a small-time gangster blasts a machine gun into the neon hell of the red light district. Flashy signs pop and explode: Welcome; Try to Come In – Sabrina; Cabaret X. Both Yakuza and police try to stem the madness. But still the screeching swine panic and flee. It is a sequence of incredible kinetic power; a veritable eruption of tension and impotent frustration toward the state of post-Occupation Japanese life. And though the film continues on for a few more scenes afterwards, the stampede is remembered by many to be the climax of Shōhei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships, the first great film by one of the defining members of the Japanese New Wave.
Seemingly in direct response to the more measured films of the early 1950s, the Japanese New Wave harkened the arrival of a new generation of iconoclastic filmmakers bent on challenging, upsetting, and defying social conventions through films that were stylistically audacious, moralistically murky, and frequently outright nihilistic. Alongside talents such as Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, and Hiroshi Teshigahara, Imamura worked his way up to become one of Japan’s most noted and critically [app]lauded directors of the 1960s and 1970s. After working for a time on the black market selling illicit American goods during the post-war Occupation (1945-1952), Imamura joined Shochiku Studios where he chaffed working under Yasujirō Ozu, that most static, contemplative, and calm of Japanese directors, for three films as “basically just a clapper boy.” It was only after jumping ship to rival studio Nikkatsu that Imamura managed to direct his own films. And though his first few productions like Stolen Desire (1958) and Endless Desire (1958) were by no means amateurish affairs, it was only until Pigs and Battleships that the themes and characters that would truly define his career would first bloom.
Imamura once said: “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.” As such, the two leads of Pigs and Battleships are a wannabe gangster-cum-pimp named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), a young woman whose mother repeatedly tries to prostitute to American soldiers. Kinta’s gang starts a business selling black-market pigs raised on scraps from American battleships. But things quickly go wrong for Kinta as he is made the fall-guy for the “boss” when a rival gangster is killed. And when his gang is extorted for more money to pay for pig food, Kinta is reduced to forcing “charity donations” from local businesses and families. And while Kinta’s life falls apart, Haruko begins to seriously consider selling herself… if it means getting ahead financially.
Imamura regards his subjects with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker. As Nelson Kim explains: “Scenes are usually filmed from wide- or medium-shot distance. There are infrequent close-ups and few POV shots. Editing is rarely used to expand or contract time in order to build excitement for the viewer.”1 Although this early in his career, Imamura allowed himself a few stylistic flourishes: there are several long-distance tracking shots through the busy streets of Yokosuka which allow the audience to view the humans like insects under a microscope; grandiose panning shots that transition between the rebuilt, affluent sectors of the city and the industrial slums book-end the film; and a scene where Haruko is gang-raped by American sailors is curiously shot from a top-down perspective before the camera starts swirling around and around à la the spinning newspaper transition from old Hollywood studio films.
That Pigs and Battleships has neither a traditionally happy nor sad ending is further evidence of Imamura’s fascination with the lower aspects of human life. His characters were first and foremost survivors; individuals willing to steal, kill, and prostitute themselves in order to get by. Though they may make it to the end credits, their actions absent themselves from uplifting conclusions. In a way, it is almost a metaphor for the post-war Japan of Imamura’s youth. It clawed its way from the ruins of World War Two to emerge as a global economic powerhouse, but at what cost? The same nation responsible for the post-war “economic miracle” had given rise to karōshi, hikikomori, parasite singles, smile mask syndrome, herbivore men, and otaku. Even in the 2000s Imamura’s resignation toward his country was apparent. “I think we’ve lost our way,” he said in a 2002 interview. “We’ve got this wonderful freedom and nobody is doing anything with it.”