Shohei Imamura is one of my favorite directors, and it’s a recurring frustration that I haven’t been able to see more of his movies; many just aren’t available in the states, and his recent work is nowhere near as great as the amazing films he made from 1961 to the mid-80’s. The Ballad of Narayama is somewhere in my top five films ever, and wonderful flicks like Eijanaika and The Insect Woman are some of the most unsensationalistic, unblinkered views of brutality and poverty ever. And still I have yet to see the wonderfully named The History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess or The Profound Desire of the Gods.
But I did finally see Pigs and Battleships, and from the very start, the scope of the enveloping setting that he creates–in this case, post-war, occupied Yokohama–is stunning. The plot is discursive, difficult to follow, and eventually absurd: something about gangsters raising pigs for money. In the climactic scene, hundreds of pigs run loose in Yokohama’s red light district. Meanwhile, an inept, flunky gangster attempts to save his girlfriend from being sold off as a prostitute or as an American soldier’s wife. He dies, but the girlfriend defiantly escapes the hellhole to start a new life elsewhere.
(In Imamura’s words, “Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu don’t really exist.)
There are multiple layers of symbolism and allegory, mostly around the cultural impact of the loss of the war and the American occupation, but realism remains absolutely paramount. Even when pigs are running crazy, the characters themselves are driven by base motives that remain absolutely plausible because of their simplicity. After the film, I argued with a friend who said that the conflicts–young man trying to be successful for his girlfriend–were cliched, and the characters were not interesting in themselves.
I have no problem with this; it suits Imamura’s style, which needs a basis in the mundane to ground its panoramic grotesques. He does not dress up his characters in fancy psychological motives or extreme situations because it would detract from the sense of the world he is trying to create. I saw Closer the other night and got a kick out of it, but the characters were so artificially articulate and contrived that they bore no resemblance to the world that I know. Imamura presents a setting that I have never experienced, and makes the people and the cultural systems behind them seem as tangible as the people I see on the subway each morning.