One of the most repeated and controversial quotes from the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election was from then Democratic candidate Barack Obama (now President Obama) in which he said on a campaign stop, "You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." Republican pundits claimed that Obama was taking a misogynist jab against John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, while Obama's camp vehemently denied any such thing and claimed the "pig" comment was an old adage of not taking something at face value. Regardless of what the real intention of the comment was it's still managed to linger in the popular imagination and it came to my mind again and again as I sat down recently and watched Shohei Imamura's 1961 Japanese New Wave classic "Pigs and Battleships". Let me explain why.
"Pigs and Battleships" throws us into the rough, nocturnal world of Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture in the years following Japan's surrender to the Allied Forces at the end of the war. Yokosuka is now home to the largest U.S. naval base on Japanese soil (it's still one of the most important naval facilities in Japan today) and its streets are a maze of neon-decked strip clubs, seedy bars, and back alley brothels that cater to the occupying forces. This is a world that Shohei Imamura would have known very well. In the days and months following WW2 the then 20-something soon-to-be filmmaker worked in the thriving and often dangerous black markets that sprouted up in every major urban center in Japan. With this first hand knowledge we could imagine that Imamura probably knew young men and women like Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), the two protagonists on the film. Kinta, the son of an alcoholic garbage man, has dreams of overcoming his surroundings and sees the local yakuza thugs and their plan to buy a herd of pigs and feed them expired rations from the naval base as his best chance. Haruko on the other hand tries to get her boyfriend to forget the gang, its sickly leader "Slasher" Tetsuji (Tetsuro Tamba), and the pigs and head off with her to Kawasaki to get a respectable factory job; but not even their unborn child, Haruko's slip into prostitution and the murder of a rival thug can seem to convince Kinta to go straight.
Made just a few short years after Imamura jumped ship at Shochiku and the rigid working methods of its master director Yasujiro Ozu, who Imamura worked under as an assistant, "Pigs and Battleships" is a gutter-level view of a Japan that his new bosses at Nikkatsu weren't terribly happy with. The oldest movie studio in Japan was trying to appeal to a younger, "hipper" audience, but Imamura's crime-filled, poverty stricken, overtly sexual, and obscenely humorous vision was a little too close to reality for them. Add the fact that the year before its release Japan had been rocked by violent protests over the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (a.k.a. the Anpo Treaty) which strengthened the hold of the United States on Japan and extended the occupancy of the U.S. military bases across the country. Now they had a film on their hands that directly addressed the issues that were dividing Japanese society. The Nikkatsu execs blacklisted Imamura for two years after "Pigs and Battleships" was released, but it's a shame they couldn't have seen past the controversy. "Pigs and Battleships" is a work of amazing social insight and and often jaw-dropping technical beauty. You need only watch the tracking shots that have us walk the streets with the drunken soldiers, hookers and con men to see that. It's a beauty that co-exists or masks an ugly, brutish truth though... and that brings us back to the Barack Obama "lipstick on a pig" quote that kept passing through my mind as I watched Kinta, Haruko and their fellow cast of motley hoods and sailors.
So who exactly is the lipstick wearing "pig" in this scenario? One could easily say the pigs are the Japanese who while scrambling to drag themselves up from post-WW2 chaos are depicted as living off the scraps of the naval base, behaving subserviently, dare we say domesticated, by their former enemies, and in a very literal sense applying lipstick and rouge so they can service the off duty G.I.'s and U.S. military police. Ah, but couldn't we just as easily argue that these same G.I.'s and U.S. military police are in fact the lipstick wearing pigs? What better way to describe these burly men with bristle brush-cuts who gallop, rut, rape, and gorge themselves in the red light districts around the base while maintaining an air of authority by wearing their white uniforms and medals? Or, and I think that this is the point that Imamura may have been trying to make with "Pigs and Battleships", are both the occupied Japanese and the occupying Americans one and the same? The film's climax, which has Kinta freeing truckloads of swine into the narrow streets of Yokosuka while spraying its garish marquees with machine gun fire, has both the yakuza hustlers and G.I.'s being trampled in the same filth. As Imamura was to later observe one of the central concerns of his career as a filmmaker was the question, "What differentiates humans from other animals. What is a human being?" No other film in Imamura's filmography lays out this question better than "Pigs and Battleships" and that makes this "lipstick wearing pig" one of the best entry points into his eccentric and inspired filmography.