Japan, just after WWII. In the town of Yokosuka, smalltime crook Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) earns his dough by hustling sailors from the neighboring US naval base and bringing them to local brothels. His girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), also living precariously and unwilling to be married to a foreigner in order to provide for her family, wants to move with him to Kawasaki and find for him an honorable job as a factory worker. But Kinta doesn’t want to end his days like his father, dull, sick and miserable after a whole life spent slaving for a meager wage. He finds a job as caretaker for a pig pen run by a criminal organization from the area, a covering devised for selling scraps of food from the US base on the black market. He joins the gang in control of the herd and for a while yakuza life and its easy profits seem to suit him well. However, soon problems arise among the members of the gang and everything around Kinta and Haruko starts to fall apart.
Pigs and Battleships is one of Imamura’s early film-making efforts. Even though the film dates back to 1961 — quite early in the Japanese film-maker’s career — this work contains some of Imamura’s trademark themes that can be traced throughout his entire production, such as the attention to outcasts of Japanese society, the pungent irony, the compelling use of symbolism and the minute analysis of gender role mechanics.
From the very start, with the opening titles accompanied by flamboyant parade music, the tone of the film is placed in the orbit of the social commentary carried out by the Japanese New Wave, of which Imamura was one of the key figures. Even with its lesson in realism with the accurate portrayal of the sordid town where the story takes place, Pigs and Battleships remains a highly metaphorical work open to several levels of interpretation.
Imamura’s humankind is unveiled while engaged in the lowest preoccupations and activities, in all its eagerness to succumb to ravenousness and temptations of material nature and in its appalling incapacity to feel for its own kin. The depiction of the characters in the movie is farcical and at times even cynical. Detractors will point out that foreigners, Americans in particular, are portrayed in a stereotypical and approximate manner: everything, from their physical demeanor to their speech, is grotesque and blown out of proportions. It must be noted though that the Japanese, even if they are described with richer traits and care for the detail, don’t seem to undergo a more merciful evaluation. Some among the sequences, such as the one with the band of criminals that has to dispose of a corpse while trying to explain their logic to Kinta — making abomination and corruption sound completely reasonable and inevitable — and the one with Haruko violated in the hotel room by the American sailors, with the camera vertiginously spinning while observing the scene from above, are exemplary of Imamura’s vision; at the same time, they also show in clear terms the difference in treatment between foreign intruders and Japanese delinquents. The sequence that however truly sums up the whole work is the one with the stampede of frenzied hogs streaming through Yokosuka’s red light district, both an outrageously absurd and brilliantly conceived display of action film-making.
Actor Hiroyuki Nagato as Kinta and co-star Jitsuko Yoshimura as Haruko are well-matched as the young couple of hoodlums trying to survive in the chaos of post-war Japan. Their dialogues, even when veined with antagonism, represent moments in which the film-maker actually takes his time to ponder and concedes that some degree of honesty in sentiments is possible yet. With the exception of a few primary characters — the central Kinta and Haruko and, to an extent, Kinta’s father — most of the other actors deliver caricatural performances, in accordance with the nature of their roles. The ubiquitous Tetsurô Tanba, cast here as gang leader Tetsuji, probably deserves a special mention. Even in his awkward moments, Tetsuji is up a certain point the regular Tanba’s badass. The script however allows his facade to crumble, revealing in him an embarrassing petty side. The scene where Tetsuji tries to kill himself by jumping in front of a train offers an unconventional take on the classic theme of yakuza honor, to this day a staple of many movies on the Japanese criminal underworld.
Watching Imamura’s films can be compared to lifting a rock and looking at humanity swarming under it. Or better yet, it’s like observing humans through a peephole. With Pigs and Battleships Imamura continues the tradition of Japanese masters whose keen eye’s intent is to explore the brutality and base instincts that are permanent features of every human being. Man is born to be slave to his ludicrous craving for pleasure, power and money, and his nature is destined to clash against his own aspirations and weaknesses. The female on the other hand is a fluid and flexible entity that can either get by resorting to questionable practices, like marrying or seducing in exchange for material benefits, or by detaching herself from sexual submission and choosing an independent path.
Women, frequently depicted in other cinematographies as malevolent temptresses, hysterical weaklings or sidekicks to prominent male characters, are often for Japanese film-makers crucial nodes in a complex social investigation. Imamura and the screenwriter Hisa Yamauchi construct Buta to Gunkan so that the story seems to be focused on Kinta and his exploits, but as the film proceeds they shift the center of attention from him to Haruko, his female counterpart. Haruko is not simply Kinta’s characterless girl, as she appears at the beginning, but an individual with depth, will and dreams of her own, dreams and will constantly conflicting with the violent thirst for destruction of the male world.
Female characters are in Buta to Gunkan the silent agent that keeps the male-driven Japanese society going while men are busy keeping up their act and playing gangsters. Haruko’s frequent appeals to Kinta to move to the city and make a fresh start in life and her desperate “Bakayarō!” (Idiot!) towards the end, are evidence that even though human kind is overall a mess, some practicalness can be expected from women, given the degree of endurance they developed after long relegation to their sexual trinket role and after getting used to make the most of their marginal social privileges.