Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (Criterion Collection)
Dir. Shoehei Imamura
Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes is an appropriate moniker for a Japanese cinema that, in the early ‘60s, slowly awakened from the domestic dramas of Yosujiro Ozu, the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi and the post-War guilt of Kon Ichikawa. Loosely dubbed the “Japanese New Wave,” this new decade gave birth to flamboyant Seijun Suzuki, the experimental filmscapes of Hiroshi Teshigahara, and the sexual daring of Nagisa Oshima.
Another of the most famous and beloved of these directors was Shohei Imamura, who continued making movies into this millennium before passing away in 2006. Though he had once been an assistant to Ozu, Imamura’s work stands in diametric opposition to that of his mentor. While Ozu’s camera barely moves, Imamura employs jump cuts, freeze frames, and a slew of other revolutionary techniques (for the early ‘60s, at least). And Imamura had no interest in family dramas or samurai. Instead, as seen on the three films that comprise this set, Imamura was more concerned about those on the fringe of society: low-level yakuza, whores, orphans, sexual predators, and indentured farmers. But rather than exploit his characters’ peccadilloes for entertainment’s sake, Imamura is perhaps less radical than he had hoped. Much like Ozu and Kurosawa, this filmmaker never fails to humanize his characters, instilling in each work the subtle message that housewives and courtesans deserve equal treatment.
The earliest film in the set, Pigs and Battleships (1961), concerns a group of hapless, small-time gangsters known as chimpira who run the local black market in a town where the economy is fed by the Navy occupiers who frequent its brothels and bars. While the men run gambling dens and earn money as pimps, many of the women work as hookers, in hopes of being selected as private mistress to an American soldier. Imamura focuses on Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) a naïve member of a local gang hoping to make money on a pig-raising business. When his higher-ups take part in a murder, Kinta agrees to act as fall-guy, should the police discover the body. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) lobbies for Kinta to quit the gang and run off with her, mainly out of fear, since her family is pressuring her to find work as a mistress to an American.
The Yokosuka of Pigs and Battleships is a network of twisted alleyways, shady backroom card games and impromptu gang hangouts straight out of a Hollywood noir flick. Everyone is at fault in Imamura’s world. Americans are portrayed as boorish, drunken louts and the Japanese prey on their own, willing to change allegiances and sell out comrades to get ahead. Kinta is fascinated by the American image of cool, clad in a leather jacket emblazoned with the word “JAPAN” and ball cap. Only Haruko sees any reason in this society, whose denizens are no better than the pigs they hope to raise. And when pigs do literally flood the streets in the film’s finale, only Haruko escapes as the others drown in the slop of the sty they’ve created.
Imamura’s innovative filmmaking techniques make their debut in Pigs and Battleships. Street scenes resemble, at least formally, the Paris of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and when Haruko realizes she is helpless against three American assailants, Imamura raises his camera above the action, to an omniscient point of view that allows us to recognize the cage Haruko has been ensnared inside.
Imamura pushes those innovations a step further in his next film, 1963’s The Insect Woman. Allowing his story to unfold in a series of vignettes, Imamura uses a freeze-frame combined with a snippet of voice-over narrative to signal the end of a certain period of time, ushering us from one milieu to another by means of a title card indicating the date.
Sachiko Hidari stars as Tome Matsuki, born in 1918 to the town tramp, who, after getting pregnant by one of her lovers, has tricked the town idiot into marrying her. In an early, prescient scene, Tome watches her mother make love with another man, a moment that sets the tone for the rest of her life. Delving into the psycho-sexual themes that inform much of his oeuvre, Imamura unflinchingly depicts the sexual relationship between Tome and her father, Chuji. The unnatural pair begin sleeping together, bathing one another, and, eventually, Chuji drinks the milk from the burgeoning Tome’s breasts after she raped by her landowner’s son.
The film is thick with satire, as Tome moves away from the farm and finds work as a maid in brothel. Once she topples the madam to assume control, Tome soon becomes what she once hated, subjecting her employees to humiliating jobs and even forcing plastic surgery to make her homely maid more marketable. The surgery, which involves the creation of a bridge for the girl’s nose, is another jab at Japan’s obsession with American culture.
Tome, though persecuted by a misogynist society, becomes a prostitute, then a kept woman, and finally runs her own call-girl service, succeeding not through innovation, rather than perversity. If a society presents one with limited options, is survival a mark of degradation? Imamura is less interested in making us pity Tome than in forcing us to marvel at her ability to adapt. Ultimately, the director indicts a society that pushed women into such situations, not the women themselves.
Imamura employs freeze frame, voiceover narrative and still photos once more in 1964’s Intentions of a Murder. Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) is the common-law wife of a businessman who, because of ancestral debt, lives enslaved to her husband’s family. She is broken and cowed by this responsibility until an intruder breaks into her home while everyone but Sadako is away and rapes her. Sadako originally thinks she must kill herself, but her assailant begins to return in the night, soon professing his love for her. Rather than the vicious rapist we first see, Imamura reveals a lonely man with a heart condition looking for someone to mother him.
Intentions of a Murder slowly reveals its true purpose: Sadako must escape not only from her attacker but also the daily violence of living an indentured life. Like some of Hitchcock’s best twisted thrillers, Imamura keeps us in the dark for much of Intentions of a Murder, unsure of Sadako’s plans and motivations. In a world of mysterious trains, late night visitors and haunting dream sequences, Imamura only reveals the truth in the film’s horrific finale.