The BFI Nikkatsu Film Festival – Pigs and Battleships review

Established a century ago in 1912, Nikkatsu is not only famous as being the oldest of Japan’s film studios, it is without doubt one of the most bizarre and turbulent of all film studios worldwide. Pigs and Battleships - boy in a cap and girl on the wallFrom it’s roots as stepping stone for the ‘Father of Japanese Cinema’ Shozo Makino to it’s post heyday status as ‘Roman Porno Erotica line’, Nikkatsu’s history is as much about the unbelievable true stories surrounding it’s progression as it is about the many myths and legends it has carved out from a hundred years of production.

Throughout this month the good folk at the BFI Southbank are running their Seasons in the Sun festival, a collection of some of the weirdest and most wonderful outputs from Nikkatsu’s post war golden era and I urge you to try and see as many as possible. This is a unique opportunity for Asian film buffs and purveyors of the alternative alike to see these masterpieces as they were originally intended.

Produced and set in 1961, Pigs and Battleships is the first film of this festival I have had the pleasure of experiencing. The fifth feature for director Shohei Imamura, this was the film that defined his particular visual and exponential style, cementing his place in the Nikkatsu history books for creating a film unlike anything else seen before in Japan.

Brazenly flaunting all the rules and conventions laid down by his mentor Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, Imamura uses Pigs and Battleships to reveal the stark truth of small fishing villages in Japan still clutched by the ever present United States troops, leaving no participator untouched by his scathing portrayal of a country not quite buckling under the pressures of Western involvement.

At around 98% pig and 2% battleship the eponymous film uses both components of its title as incredibly well constructed allegories for the plight of the post-war underclasses of Japan.

The film follows our protagonist and anti-hero Kinta’s coming of age story as he struggles to prove to himself and his girlfriend Haruko that his chosen path in life as lackey within a local yakuza gang is best for both of them, his aspirations of being a pimp, pig dealer and drug peddler acting as a stark contrast to Hakuro’s dreams to move to Kawasaki and settle down to a more legitimate lifestyle.

This is not a classic ‘rise to power’ gangster film, Imamura’s inimitable style holds no place for the glorification of the Yakuza lifestyle prevalent in other Japanese greats such as Yajû no seishun’s Youth of the Beast nor the brooding silent power of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s later works.

This is archetypal Japanese New Wave, resplendent in it’s comedic timing of Kinta’s bumbling foolish antics and portrayal of local gangs as mere hoodlums creating a comedy of errors amongst their confused and ultimately botched dealings with the US naval forces and their Chinese and Korean bosses.

As a parallel to the earlier French new wave films, Pigs and Battleships packs as much action as possible within every one of its compelling scenes. Despite the heavy use of locked off and still shots, there is never a single moment where there is nothing happening, allowing no time for the reflection Ozu and Kurosawa strived so hard to create within Japanese cinema.

This is visceral cinema at it’s most wanton and is reflected through the actions of every member of cast’s response and reaction to the unfolding and twisting plot seemingly determined in creating a harsh and bitter comeuppance for everyone involved.

The film’s penultimate scene is worth the price of admission alone. Consisting of a shootout between two warring factions, Kinta’s bumbling actions with a machine gun and at least 400 bloodthirsty pigs, Imamura proves he is a master of not only fast paced action but expertly crafted comedic timing, all the while holding true to his self-constructed allegory of animals as humans.

This is wonderfully topped off in a ‘blink and you’d miss it’ shot where amongst the wounded being carried away on stretchers we are treated to a glimpse of a pig being carted off in the same fashion, a moment that had the cinema erupting with laughter and proving why these films are best experienced amongst the combined screening atmosphere.

Unfortunately this was the final run of Pigs and Battleships but there are many more gems of this ilk to come within the rest of the BFI’s run of its Seasons in the Sun festival. If you have any love for modern Asian cinema and are interested in it’s roots and forefathers you owe it to yourself to catch at least one of these masterpieces.

Written by Duncan Stevens

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