Looking for something Unusual? It's right here.
When it comes to filmic provocation, Japanese films are often way ahead of American movies. The Criterion Collection's new three-film box Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura is a set of challenging, eye-opening 1960s dramas that cast a harsh eye on Japanese society and center on strong female characters. The lurid stories and complex politics show the Japanese New Wave director to be an inventive talent with a penchant for revealing unpleasant truths. His pictures are sexually mature, painfully direct, and entirely honest -- and unlike anything made by Hollywood in the Kennedy years.
Sex and crime in the shadow of the U.S. Navy.
The oddly titled Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan) (1961) is a strange mix of occupation politics and yakuza gangsters. Imamura immediately links the American naval base at Yokosuka to a nearby red light district teeming with criminals that compete for the profits to be derived from the Yankee presence. What we think will become an anti-American tract soon doubles back to criticize Japanese profiteers, although the worst swindlers turn out to be a Korean and a Japanese-American. The fact that the Americans pay for sex with the local prostitutes is a given, but the eagerness of the local yakuza gangs to chase the Yankee dollar is seen as a far worse humiliation.
Tyro gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) is part of a scheme to start a pig farm, feeding the animals from Navy leftovers provided by a corrupt Japanese-American, an ex-Navy man. The efforts of rival gangs to take over the potentially profitable business force the extortion of more "donations" from local merchants, putting pressure on the entire system. After Kinta helps murder a rival gang leader, the gang encourages him to take the rap and the prison term that goes with it. His boss, Slasher Tetsugi (Tetsuro Tamba of You Only Live Twice), is suffering from a stomach ailment, and Kinta feels honor-bound to stay close to him.
The strongest character is Kinta's girlfriend, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Haruko wants to run away from the red light district but her own mother pressures her to follow in her older sister's footsteps and become the paid mistress of an American. The film's most wrenching scene has Haruko, depressed by Kinta's refusal to join her, being raped in a hotel room by three American sailors -- as they sing, "I've Been Working on the Railroad." When the police come, Haruko is the one arrested and put in jail.
After the Korean and Japanese-American moneymen skip town with the pig farm profits, both gangs try to steal the animals for a quick sale. Enraged by the hypocrisy and double-crossing, Kinta looses six truckloads of swine in the middle of the red light district and holds off both gangsters and police with a machine gun. The utter chaos that ensues is director Imamura's wicked opinion of the state of Japan -- pigs in the shadow of American battleships, debasing themselves to make a dirty living.
The fast-paced genre piece is a statement of political outrage. Shohei Imamura's visual inventiveness comes to a boil in a spinning down-angle on Haruko being attacked in the cheap hotel room. It would be years before American thrillers would begin to match such expressive visual pyrotechnics.
Perhaps too audacious for its time, Pigs and Battleships proved a debacle that pushed Imamura back to writing for a couple of years. Its final image has Haruko leaving Yokosuka to find a decent living. The director sees Japanese women as hardy survivors that subsist no matter how hopeless things get; his next two films would focus on the trials of female leading characters. Although neither exceptional nor even particularly bright, they come off as genuine heroines.
The eternal victim refuses to surrender.
1963's The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki) is the dark and often unpleasant story of an illegitimate daughter in a country village. Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari) is taken advantage of sexually at an early age, establishing a pattern of abuse. Tome's relatives criticize her morals and then exploit her mercilessly. She's tricked into returning home from a war factory so the family can offer her as a sex toy for the landlord's son. When he makes her pregnant, she refuses to abort the child. After the war Tome works as a labor organizer and falls in love with a young foreman. He drops her the moment he's given a promotion. Tome's low point comes when she works as a maid for the Japanese mistress of an American serviceman. His small child is accidentally killed while in her care.
That leads to work as a maid in a brothel. The cagey madam trusts Tome, who eventually goes into business for herself, stealing the woman's stable of prostitutes and setting up her own elaborate call girl operation. But Tome foolishly allows a boyfriend to siphon off her profits "for investments." When her business implodes, the boyfriend wants nothing more to do with her.
Tome suffers terrible injustices throughout the film, yet endures them all; Imamura's message seems to be that women on the bottom rungs of society are the life force of the country. Tome's lot in life is directly compared to the image of a black beetle struggling up a sand hill. That visual is mirrored by the final image of the broken but unbowed woman climbing a steep mountain road. The Insect Woman won a number of Japanese awards as well as a Silver Bear in Berlin. It established Shohei Imamura as one of the key "new directors" overturning the reserved and formal movies of Japanese icons like Yasujiro Ozu. Imamura's movies are about survival, not transcendent values.
The raped housewife that can't even call herself a housewife.
1964's Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui) is another film about injustice to women, this time envisioned as a teasing murder thriller. Plump peasant Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) became pregnant while working as a maid to a library manager, Koichi Takahashi (Ko Nishimura). Now that Sadako's boy is six years old, she has been humbled to the status of maid and unofficial wife, with no rights. Criticized constantly by her mother-in-law, Sadako is also distrusted by her husband, despite the fact that he's been carrying on a 10-year affair with his bespectacled co-worker Yoshiko (Yuko Kusunoki). One night Sadako is followed home and raped by Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi), a self-destructive jazz drummer with a serious heart ailment. Unable to kill herself, Sadako instead enjoys a good meal, setting up the familiar Imamura pattern of a woman that survives simply by refusing to give up.
The story unfolds as a parody of a murder tale in a sordid, almost comical situation. Sadako is beaten by both her husband and the rapist Hiraoko, who returns repeatedly until she feels she must be rid of him. But the woman is no more capable of killing than she is of taking her own life. Meanwhile, the jealous Yoshiko stalks Sadako with a camera to document her meetings with Hiraoko. She's desperate to steal Koichi for herself.
The animal correlative this time is a tiny silkworm, shown crawling suggestively up Sadako's leg when she was a young girl. Sadako is a sexual creature but also one who cares about her personal dignity: realizing that she's once again pregnant, she takes steps to force Koichi to acknowledge their marriage in a court of law. Imamura pays off the thriller aspects in totally unexpected ways. The landscape changes to a snowbound mountain tunnel for Sadako's showdown with Hiraoko, and another subplot is resolved with a sudden burst of violence.
Shohei Imamura's daring films weave themes of sex and social injustice into compelling stories that would never have been considered appropriate in America at the time. All three widescreen B&W films are transferred with typical Criterion precision. Admiring critic Tony Rayns analyzes each in a short featurette, and director Imamura is interviewed for a Japanese TV show on two of the titles. Pigs and Battleships is covered in a French television piece as well. Critics Audie Bock, Dennis Lim, and James Quandt provide insightful insert booklet essays.
reviews online at DVD Savant