Pigs, Pimps and Other Friends of Shohei Imamura
by Steve Dollar
Green Cine Daily
Although he bowed out in 2006, at age 79, as a globally revered grand master of cinema—his nation's greatest living filmmaker—Shohei Imamura may have simply refined his touch over a 45-year career so that his gritty vision of Japanese society played more elegantly on the screen. He didn't stake his reputation on arthouse propriety. Not that you'd necessarily infer that from the somber, poetic tone of latter-day productions such as The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Over time, the director became so smoothly transgressive that his final feature, 2001's Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, could employ female ejaculation as a metaphor and not raise any eyebrows.
Because so many of his films from the 1960s—the period when Imamura broke with convention and boldly defined himself as a fearless observer of the human condition, mapping the gamier precincts of postwar Japan—have been out of circulation or otherwise hard to see, contemporary audiences have missed out on most of the ripe, juicy stuff.
Criterion delivers the goods with its new triple-disc set, Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes. Its an apt summary of some of the major players in these robust dramas, and also the title of a 2007 retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinematek that saw rare revivals of Pigs and Battleships (1961), The Insect Woman (1963) and Intentions of Murder (1964), all included in the box, as well as the mad ethnography-on-crack epic The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968), and the decade-closing documentary, History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Those latter films would have made welcome additions to the package, which also serves as a fitting companion to Criterion's edition of The Pornographers (1966), the most commonly accessible of Imamura's '60s efforts.
Watched in sequence, the films show off the development of Imamura's unusual balance of objectivity and outrageousness. Every biographical note talks about the director's impulse to break away from the stately transcendence of Ozu, for whom he apprenticed, and surf the hurly-burly of the underclass. What makes his films so pleasurable, even when the camera seems to impose an almost clinical gaze, is that irrepressibly earthy sensibility. There's an often grimy, grindhouse candor that animates these social anatomies and their gallery of misfits. Pimps, prostitutes, and pigs were some of the director's best friends, not to mention serial killers, bar girls, rapists, conniving husbands, hapless pornographers, petty hoodlums and incestuous country bumpkins.
Those porkers are no mere symbol. Pigs and Battleships, which Nikkatsu's bosses despised on its release, is a broadly comic saga of occupied Japan. Its lowlife antics transpire in the port town of Yokosuka, whose black market thrives amid the influx of American servicemen. A series of unfortunate events turns a wannabe gangster's pork-vending scam into so much hogwash, as hundreds of pigs stampede, trampling the exploitative intents of the local crime syndicate and the Yankee arrivals alike. The film, in all its sordid vigor, represents Imamura at his most freewheeling. One memorable scene involves a yakuza version of the Three Stooges who, having whacked a rival and tossed him in the pigpen, later slaughter one of the swine for supper and discover... well, let's say they need a few extra toothpicks for this barbecue. Making splendid use of black-and-white Cinemascope shot in high contrast by Shinsaku Himeda, a restlessly mobile camera, a manufactured set of neon jazz dives and hive-like bordellos, and penumbral interior lighting that evokes noir-like intrigue even at the most mundane moments, Imamura enjoys a crackling pace. When the local punks leap into the air to dodge a round of accidental machine gun spray, it's as kinetic as a 15-second musical.
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