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TCM Imports - July 2019
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Remind Me

Pigs and Battleships aka The Flesh is Hot

"I don't believe in dramas consisting only of beautiful people. Drama is about ordinary people, their lives and the turning points in their lives." That philosophy, spoken by writer-director Shôhei Imamura in a 1995 episode of the French television series Cinéma, de notre temps, is also an excellent entry point to the work of one of the shining lights of the Japanese New Wave. Imamura rose through the ranks of the Japanese film industry including a three-film apprenticeship under the legendary Yasujirō Ozu, whose trademark formalism was a wall Imamura tore down in spectacular fashion with his kinetic, down-to-earth films aimed at an entirely different, younger audience. Based on a novel by Kazu Ôtsuka, his breakthrough 1961 film, Pigs and Battleships, a controversial Nikkatsu production that ended up getting its writer-director blacklisted for two years. However, Imamura used the break to his advantage and eventually launched a string of major films including, The Insect Woman (1963), The Pornographers (1966), Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) and Vengeance Is Mine (1979).

A decade after the devastation of World War II, young barkeep Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura, in a debut performance just before Imamura's The Insect Woman and Onibaba in 1964) leads a fairly straight and narrow life that takes a wild turn when she becomes enamored with the flashier, more dangerous Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), who's chasing a get-rich criminal scheme involving pig breeding as a food source for local American troops at the Yokosuka U.S. military base. Both come from deeply damaged homes, and in a world filled with gangsters, prostitution and cultural tensions, they end up going on sharply divided paths.

A very early entry in the wave of yakuza films that would become a major component of Japanese cinema throughout the 1960s, Pigs and Battleships is also among the most convincing due to the amount of effort Imamura put into researching and spending time with area gangsters. His own brief experience as a very young man just after the war in black market cigarettes and alcohol (among an environment of pimps and addicts) gave him a leg up on his contemporaries, with his rule-breaking enthusiasm for restless, very mobile camerawork giving his work a distinctive flavor. In his essay for the Criterion Collection about the film, Audie Bock ties Imamura's approach as an attempt "to debunk the myth of the self-effacing, culturally refined, and socially ultrapolite Japanese" familiarized by early directors like Ozu, with an open attempt to treat the actors in a polar opposite fashion as they "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."

Pigs and Battleships was also one of the earliest Japanese films to fully embrace the possibilities of Nikkatsuscope, the studio's proprietary spin on the wide CinemaScope process designed to lure viewers away from televisions and back into theaters. Nikkatsu was a force to be reckoned with at the time with directors like Yuzo Kawashima (the most influential of Imamura's mentors), with early minor scripts soon handed to Imamura to direct like Nishi Ginza Station (1958) and Endless Desire (1958) that nevertheless showed off his talent. As Tony Rayns pointed out in a video interview about the film, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan signed in Washington, D.C. one year before this film was a likely catalyst; still intact today, it formed a military alliance between the U.S. and Japan while prohibiting the latter from forming its own army. That sense of a massive sea change in the culture and a sense of uneasy reliance on a foreign power inhabiting Japan can be felt in the film right from the beginning with its nervous, jazzy tenor and long tracking shots of Japanese locals and American sailors rubbing shoulders during a long tracking shot through the bright, neon-lit and dangerous streets that serve as a backdrop to one of Japanese cinema's most audacious calling cards.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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