Parallels between Japan as a country and the lives of the individual characters constantly run throughout Pigs and Battleships, imbuing the character’s lives and decisions with a greater significance and depth. The two main protagonists, low level yakuza Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), are at an important tipping point and there is a sense throughout the film that the decisions they make will define their lives.
Kinta is striving for success as a gangster, through get rich schemes and attempts to curry favour with the promise to take the heat for one of his gang’s murders. He is desperate to carve out a life that is defined by his reputation as a gangster. Haruko on the other hand wants out of the port town of Yokosuka in which they live, seeing beyond the traditional life her parents still believe in and also beyond the survival lifestyle involved in staying.
Based on a script by Hisashi Yamauchi the film is a somewhat complex and multi-stranded piece with the actions of side characters often holding more importance than they first appear to. Despite all the various characters though and the B, C and D plots, Pigs and Battleships never becomes muddled or difficult to follow. It is a complex story told simply and with skill.
Even with the sometimes unsubtle social commentary it also never gets too bogged down in melodramatic soap-boxing; this is a film that relies on an emotional engagement with the main characters and Yamauchi and Imamura’s love of these characters is apparent throughout, even when the character’s behaviour is reckless or stupid. The only aspect that does perhaps overshadow this is when the more symbolic moments are less subtextual than they perhaps should be. The scene of a pig being consumed by the gangsters, which itself has eaten the murder victim is one that, when considering the symbolic illusions throughout, relies perhaps too heavily on a labyrinthian semiotical understanding of what is being said.
Imamura’s elegant direction, filled with beautiful location tracking shots and carefully constructed shots, and the clear and always appropriate editing choices though ensure that Pigs and Battleships is an absorbing film and a fine piece of storytelling that transcends its historical significance in being a beautiful film in every respect.
This new Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema follows a similar HD release from Criterion in the US (a similarly region-locked release) but MoC have produced their own transfer of the film. Pigs and Battleships looks exceptional and perhaps the only area where any fault at all can be found is in the blacks. These are perhaps too light in places but I’ve never been lucky enough to see this film projected so cannot speak to how this compares to a 35mm projection. The slightly grey blacks are a very minor issue though and for the most part the transfer is of high quality and always respectful to the source material.
Extras are in a way on the slim side as there are no featurettes, interviews or commentaries (MoC does provide one of their excellent booklets though) but in place of these usual extras we are treated to something even more impressive. Included with this release is another feature film, Imamura’s wonderfully entertaining debut Stolen Desire. An enjoyable comedic film that follows the plight of a ‘tent theatre’ group, Stolen Desire is an excellent addition to this release and a film worth seeking out in its own right.