Originally released in 1961, Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships is a beautiful film and one that wonderfully captures a unique period in Japanese history. Following the nation’s defeat in World War II Japan was subject to a significant American presence and as a country recovering from the very serious effects of the war this had a significant impact on the post war malaise. Moving away from war era beliefs, dealing with a distrust of the older generation and generally struggling to survive in difficult circumstances, the younger Japanese population were wrestling with something of an identity crisis.
Parallels between Japan as a country and the lives of the individual characters constantly run throughout Pigs and Battleships, imbuing the character’s lives and decisions with a greater significance and depth. The two main protagonists, low level yakuza Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), are at an important tipping point and there is a sense throughout the film that the decisions they make will define their lives.
Kinta is striving for success as a gangster, through get rich schemes and attempts to curry favour with the promise to take the heat for one of his gang’s murders. He is desperate to carve out a life that is defined by his reputation as a gangster. Haruko on the other hand wants out of the port town of Yokosuka in which they live, seeing beyond the traditional life her parents still believe in and also beyond the survival lifestyle involved in staying.
Based on a script by Hisashi Yamauchi the film is a somewhat complex and multi-stranded piece with the actions of side characters often holding more importance than they first appear to. Despite all the various characters though and the B, C and D plots, Pigs and Battleships never becomes muddled or difficult to follow. It is a complex story told simply and with skill.
Even with the sometimes unsubtle social commentary it also never gets too bogged down in melodramatic soap-boxing; this is a film that relies on an emotional engagement with the main characters and Yamauchi and Imamura’s love of these characters is apparent throughout, even when the character’s behaviour is reckless or stupid. The only aspect that does perhaps overshadow this is when the more symbolic moments are less subtextual than they perhaps should be. The scene of a pig being consumed by the gangsters, which itself has eaten the murder victim is one that, when considering the symbolic illusions throughout, relies perhaps too heavily on a labyrinthian semiotical understanding of what is being said.
Imamura’s elegant direction, filled with beautiful location tracking shots and carefully constructed shots, and the clear and always appropriate editing choices though ensure that Pigs and Battleships is an absorbing film and a fine piece of storytelling that transcends its historical significance in being a beautiful film in every respect.