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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Shohei Imamura's Rebellious Ways Started with Pigs and Battleships!

Director: Shohei Imamura

Cast: Hiroyuki Nagato, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Masao Mishima, Tetsurô Tanaba, Shirô Osaka

Related films: The Insect Woman, The Ballad of Narayama, Tokyo Story

Studio: Nikkatsu

Year: 1961

Verdict: 5/6


Introducing Pigs and Battleships

Shohei Imamura directed a few films before Pigs and Battleships, but this was the first movie of his own design. It was based on his own experiences, and it brought to light the lawless conditions that prevailed on the streets of Japan after World War II.

Pigs and Battleships was released in 1961 in Japan. The story was based on a novel by Kazu Otsuka and takes place in the port city Yokosuka. In particular, it reflects the crooked relations between Japanese gangs and American military opportunists in postwar Japan.

Imamura would later become one of the most distinctive filmmakers in Japan. Pigs and Battleships was his first sign of auteur filmmaking, and it immediately labeled him a rebel. So astute were his observations, that Nikkatsu banned him from screenwriting for two years after the film's release.

Brought Up by Pimps and Prostitutes | The Background of Pigs and Battleships!

Shohei Imamura spent his formative years on the broken streets of post-war Tokyo. Black markets were overflowing with hoodlums from far and wide. Chinese gangsters, American soldiers and sassy call girls were out in the open for Imamura to see and take influence from.

«Everything became free. We could talk about our real thoughts and feelings ...

Even sex became free, and the black market was brilliant.»

Shohei Imamura (Interview, The Guardian)

After high school, Imamura entered an assistant directors course at Shochiku Studios. There, he worked as a production assistant on three films by Yasujirô Ozu. The rigid methods of the later to become master of Japanese cinema did not impress Imamura much.

Some years later, Imamura got a job at Nikkatsu Studios. He was initially hired to make a handful of conveyor belt studio films. In 1961, he finally got free reigns to make the film he wanted. Pigs and Battleship took us all back to those broken Tokyo streets.

Stories From a Hustler | The Plot in Pigs and Battleships

The tone is immediately set in the opening scenes when the camera slowly moves backwards through a busy street in Yokosuka. The port town is teeming with life. American soldiers overrun the cityscape, while local businessmen, prostitutes and thugs take advantage of the situation.

In this shady setting we are introduced to the protagonist Kinta and his girlfriend Haruko. Kinta is a low-ranking yakuza member who struggles to achieve respect and get promoted within his crew. Haruko works as a barmaid. She wants Kinta to give up his criminal ways and seek a more worthwhile occupation.

The young couple’s differences and disputes are the main driving force of the narrative. Kinta and his yakuza crew add suspense to the mix, as their daily schedule is mostly filled with racketeering, thievery and corruption.

The current scheme of Kinta’s crew is to invest in a large stock of pigs. By dealing with American opportunists, Chinese businessmen and local Japanese authorities, the hoodlums land a great deal on pig food. A deal that proves too good to be true, and seals Kinta’s fate.

The plot tightens when Kinta reluctantly agrees to take the fall for a yakuza murder. Haruko, on the other hand, becomes more worried about the hustling lifestyle every day. In frustration, she blows off steam by getting drunk and partying with some American soldiers. It all takes a disastrous turn, when suddenly she is violated by three lowlife sailors.

Sordid plot points aside, on the surface, the story in Pigs and Battleships is told in a happy-go-lucky-manner. The tale gets increasingly darker, however, as the young couple find them self spiraling into a dark cesspool of amorality. Without spoiling the finale, it is safe to say that Pigs and Battleships quickly transforms from playful yakuza action to pitch black social commentary.

The Consequences that Came with American Battleships

Between the lines is a comment on how postwar Japanese society quickly became corrupted by outside influences. Prostitution, gambling and other illegal activities were thriving, while the American soldiers were bringing out the worst in the local community.

The story in Pigs and Battleships takes place after the end of American occupation. Still, it points to the fact that a foreign military presence continued to affect Japanese society long thereafter.

As part of the WWII surrender, Japan was banned from doing any military expansion. Instead, America guaranteed to protect Japan from any outside threats in the foreseeable future.

This agreement was a double-bladed sword. On the one hand, it let Japan focus on its recovery. In this sense, the forced disarmament facilitated the Japanese economic miracle, which led to the establishment of the highest living standard in all of East Asia.

On the other hand, the maintaining of American army bases in Japan came with loads of bad influences, like differential treatment, racism, and enforcing of criminal elements in society. To this day, American soldiers are regularly reported to treat local citizens badly, or even commit crimes for which they are not punished due to loopholes in the justice system.

The Pigs that Fed from the Battleship’s Hand

This is not to say that Imamura portrayed outsiders as the only villains. He explicitly wanted to depict the lower echelons of Japanese society. The criminal element was always there. It just got a lot more visible in the postwar era, when the strong arm of the law had other things to worry about than petty black market hustling.

More than a mere reflection of his own experiences, Imamura went out of his way to contrast the staged Japaneseness he saw in Ozu's filmmaking. He wanted to show a slice of the real Japan. By doing so, he appears to have approached the real human condition, whether acted out by American soldiers, Chinese gangsters or Japanese yakuzas.

Just like Kinta was trying to rise above the oppression of his yakuza employers, Japan was trying to rise above continued foreign oppression. As such, the pigs in the film serve as an allegory for the Japanese people, and in particular the marginalized locals that were forced to partake in dishonest businesses in order to survive.

The American military presence enforced capitalist greed more than it promoted equality. As a result, increasingly powerful opportunists tainted the shift towards Japanese democratization. The hustlers grew into big fat powerful hogs, while the hard-working honest men and women became devalued cogs in the machine.

The Heroines Amongst Pigs and Battleships

Imamura never tried to hide his admiration of streetwalkers and call girls. Instead, he applauded their head-on dealing with personal affections and suffering. Many of his female characters therefore became natural counterparts to the rigid and submissive female stereotype that has been idealized in Japan through all ages.

Haruko also suffers great hardship in Pigs and Battleships. Between tempting opportunities from foreign hustlers and the constant pressure of conforming to Japanese family traditions, she is dealt more than her share of grief.

Haruko is far from perfect. She makes some error in judgment for sure, the biggest one arguably being her loyalty to Kinta. Deep down, however, her values appear uncorrupted. In many ways, she appears to be the last speck of human decency left on the corrupt streets of Yokosuka City.

Perhaps the free-speaking call girls were the most honest voices Imamura found on the black markets. The strength it took for them to survive in such an environment certainly impressed him a lot. No one overcomes the battleships better than Haruko. And what about the pigs? They gain strength in number, seize the opportunity, and trample their oppressors.

Japan has yet to reclaim their military independence, which no one can foresee the consequences of. At the moment, the military balance between Japan, China, Korea and Russia, albeit tense, seems to maintain some sort of status quo. Who is to say what would happen to this balance if America suddenly withdrew and Japan was free to arm up again?

The Production of Pigs and Battleships

The political ties in Pigs and Battleships might seem to contradict the aforementioned happy-go-lucky atmosphere. Imamura made it flow perfectly, however, by contrasting the serious undertones to cheeky dialogue and setting it in an intriguing atmosphere.

The somewhat convoluted storytelling would probably be a lot more anonymous, were it not for the captivating setting. Instead, the combo of a breakneck plot and a lively backdrop makes Pigs and Battleships one of Imamura’s finest moments. It might be naïve, but at the same time it is more accessible than any film he would make thereafter.

The film technique isn’t as personal as Imamura’s filmmaking would become a decade later, but it makes little difference when the standard is as high as this. The camera work, the lighting and the subtle score all adds perfectly to the atmosphere and make the film interesting from start to end.

«Postwar Japan was like a teenager trying to find himself,

or perhaps like a national midlife crises?»

- JCA -

The dialogue is ultimately what holds Pigs and Battleships together. It is a jolly combination of American banter, Japanese yakuza slang and some humorous creolizations of the two.

Similar to Hollywood blockbusters of the same era, the acting performances are all slightly exaggerated. The characters are all too charismatic to make the film's reality quite believable. Still, the story is realistic enough to engage its audience and make poignant critical commentary about the state of postwar Japanese society.

Imamura successfully captured a unique atmosphere that might very well be close to what he experienced back then. Japan went through a highly transformative period after WWII. The national identity itself was in question and rebellious forces were let loose.

Likewise, Imamura's filmmaking paved way for the rebels of Japanese cinema. In the following decade he would be hailed as the godfather of so-called Japanese New Wave Cinema. Together with filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima and Susumu Hani he would soon make a substantial contribution to the history of Japanese film.

Final Verdict for Pigs and Battleships

Pigs and Battleships was an early promise from a young director who would soon become one of Japan's most renowned film auteurs. Imamura’s combo of «anti-Ozu-esque» storytelling and American influenced film style is fodder for film nerds of all kinds.

Not to forget the colorful characters and the witty dialogue. The playful and sometimes crude storytelling makes Pigs and Battleships as entertaining and accessible now as it was on its release back in 1961.

In short, Pigs and Battleships is recommended to anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. The reflections of a true hustler are a rare thing, and Imamura certainly made a rare film that should never be forgotten.

A Geisha hides her face behind a fan. On the fan it is written «A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Film».
Don't forget to check out our beginner's guide to Japanese film!


Criterion Reflections: Pigs and Battleships (1961) - #472

Electric Sheep: Pigs and Battleships

The Guardian: All you need is sex

Senses of Cinema: Imamura, Shohei

Transnational Institute: Crime and Impunity

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