Imamura’s 1961 film, Pigs and Battleships, illustrates the relationship between the U.S., represented in this film by sailors in the U.S. military occupation and Japanese society in a story set in Yokosuka, the largest U.S. Naval base in Japan.
The extraordinary thing is that it is entertaining and so well-made. It is an uncompromising, enduring, artful masterpiece of cinema in the tradition of Cervantes, Balzac and other great authors of literary history.
Perhaps, the film made it past U.S. censors in 1961 because the vanity of the victors obscured their judgment for it is a scathing reflection of the exploitive U.S. culture in contrast with the nurturing communal society of Japan as well as the racism implicit in U.S. official and personal interactions with Asians and in this instance, the Japanese. Parallels may be drawn to the U.S. conduct of the “cold war” and current popular attitudes about Islam, Iran, Vietnam, the Koreas, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such attitudes have continued to polarize relationships between European and U.S. citizenry and people of any nation who show physical differences in their genetic makeup.
In an interview for French TV now available on the Criterion DVD release, Shohei Imamura related how, after making Buta To Gunkan, he was told he could no longer make such films. Literally, he was told that Kurosawa’s was the voice of Japanese cinema about “big issues” and following this, he made only documentaries. Kurosawa’s films avoid issues that plague Japanese society resulting from U.S. influence and occupation and the effects of racism in the U.S. resulting from U.S. wartime propaganda justifying a massacre of Japanese civilians at the end of the U.S. war with Japan that surpassed Hitler’s worst moments. Imamura doesn’t present such events nor does he allude to them nor explain anything. Instead, he presents a comedy that brilliantly satirizes the implicit corruption of this situation.
There are two related plots in Pigs and Battleships: 1) the local Yakuza gang in Yokosuka pays off a corrupt U.S. official to get the fleet’s garbage to feed to pigs, 2) the relationship between a dim-witted Yakuza wannabe and his pregnant girlfriend who wants him to take a real job. The first plot is both the source of comedy and a depiction of economic exploitation of Japanese lower classes during the occupation, while the second plot brings home how this effects real people. A parallel could also be drawn with the current exploitation in the U.S. of the people of Latin America, particularly in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and in border towns like Tijuana in Baja California and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua Mexico.