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Case Number 16519

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Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura

Pigs And Battleships
1961 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
The Insect Woman
1963 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Intentions Of Murder
1964 // 153 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Criterion
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // June 3rd, 2009

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All Rise...

Funnily enough, this was also the name of Judge Brendan Babish's fantasy football league.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Insect Woman (Blu-ray) (Region B), published February 6th, 2012, is also available.

The Charge

"I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure."—Shohei Imamura

Opening Statement

Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura is widely considered one of the most influential Japanese directors—or directors of any nationality—of all time. His career spanned over fifty years, and garnered him two Palme d'Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival (both for relatively later works). In Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes, the Criterion Collection has put together three of Imamura's earlier works: Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman, and Intentions of Murder. These films, created in the early 1960s, are considered the foundation for his successful and influential career.

Facts of the Case

Pigs and Battleships is the story of Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), a young man torn between his ties to the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and the love of a good woman, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura). The Yakuza offers material benefits, but the disreputable and dangerous lifestyle is a deal-breaker for Haruko, who would be happy with the money that comes from a factory job. Further complicating things is the American military, which occupies Japan. American soldiers always seem to be in search of a good time, and they've taken a particular interest in Haruko.

The Insect Woman is the story of Tome (Sachiko Hidari), a girl who comes from a dysfunctional family and has almost nothing but bad luck. The films spans several decades (1910s up to the 1960s), as Tome tries to escape her lower-class origins through work in a factory, as a nanny, a maid, and a prostitute. Further complicating her life is a traumatic relationship with her mentally challenged stepfather, who is kindly but sexually abusive.

Intentions of Murder is the story of Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), a frumpy lower-class housewife. Sadako lives in a shabby home with her cold, officious husband and his son from another marriage. One day, while her husband is away, an intruder breaks into her home and rapes her. As horrific as this experience is, in the context of her drab and thankless existence, it doesn't seem so horrible. In fact, when the intruder returns, Sadako finds the violation, and the man's desire for her, not entirely unwelcome.

The Evidence

The three films Imamura made prior to the 1960s were light and unsatisfying projects for the director. With 1961's Pigs and Battleships, he radically changed his style, creating a film that was hardboiled, with a sharp social commentary. In particular, Imamura was harshly critical of both Japanese dependency and American dominance. At the time the film was made, the Japanese government had just extended the American occupation, causing widespread public outrage.

What's initially most surprising is how Pigs and Battleships doesn't seem dated. The movie is nearly fifty years old, was made before the American cinematic revolution of 1967, and yet sexuality and crime are presented with an unflinching starkness you rarely see in a black-and-white movie. For example, Haruko and her family (and Kinta) openly discuss the option of prostitution, with some surprising practical considerations.

Despite the subject matter, the film does have humor, and is touching at times. Kinta—who is no saint himself—struggles to resist the Yakuza's dark side, and is constantly repulsed by the Americans who not only degrade his country, but also his girlfriend. This is an intriguing portrait of a country under occupation, and it's all the more compelling since Americans, who are so often seen as heroic occupiers—at least in their own films—play brutal antagonists here. Though the portrayal of American soldiers is crude, the points the film makes are still salient, and, frankly, Imamura's most barbed commentary is for his own people.

The title of The Insect Woman refers to how Imamura sees the life for Japanese women in the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, Tome's life in the film often does mirror the degradation and hopelessness of a beetle. Like Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman has modern sensibilities, especially in terms of the female experience. Also like Pigs and Battleships, a female character struggles with the decision of whether to become a prostitute to save herself from penury. However, Tome is a more desperate—and less proud—woman than Haruko, and she is a fascinating character, especially considering her time and place.

Though Japanese women are often considered—and portrayed—as meek and silently suffering, Imamura rails against that stereotype in this film, with a character who is long suffering, but constantly struggling to rise above her conditions. In fact, Tome must ultimately be considered stronger than any of her male counterparts. She is a flawed but fascinating and inspiring character, and is the centerpiece of a great film.

Intentions of Murder is the longest of the three films, the most ambitious in style, and the most difficult to unravel. This movie—like the previous two—explores a woman's changing place in modern Japan, but it's difficult to find any straightforward interpretation here. This makes it both frustrating and intriguing.

Here Imamura masterfully depicts the onerous life of a dimwitted, staid, homely woman, but the lengths she goes to escape that life are troublesome (unfortunately, I have to be vague to avoid revealing a vital plot point). In one sense, Intentions of Murder is a powerful message about the human instinct to escape stifling existence, but at the same time, the path Sadako chooses also seems so contrary to human nature that I had trouble taking it on face value. While the film has an interesting message about women in Japan—or any misogynistic society—Imamura is too talented a storyteller to create what is essentially a "message" movie. Also, the two-and-a-half hour running time bloats the story with dream sequences and flashbacks that are far from essential. This is a bold and intriguing film, but the most uneven of the three.

As always, Criterion has done an outstanding job with this release. All three of this films included in Pimps, Pigs & Prostitutes are presented in gorgeous black-and-white. There are a couple scenes when the blacks are a little too saturated, but those often seem to be the intention of the director, who enjoys enveloping his characters in darkness. For Japanese films that are nearly fifty years old, these are absolutely pristine.

On par with the technical aspects of the films are the loads of supplements that come with the collection. While its unfortunate that there aren't any commentary tracks, there is still loads of information on Imamura and these films. What are especially helpful are the interviews with Tony Rayns that accompany each movie. He puts the material in the context it was created in, and also discusses critical and commercial responses to the films. Also helping on this score are the essays that accompany each movie, which explain some of the more subtle subtexts of each film. Lastly, there is an episode of the French television show Cinema de Notre Temps devoted to Imamura. Though this does not focus exclusively on these three films, it is a good overview of his work through the mid-1990s (he would go on to win his second Palme d'Or for the 1998 film The Eel).

Closing Statement

These three films represent cinema at its best: reflecting and challenging a society in transition. For Americans like myself, these films provide a window on a culture that sometimes seems purposely opaque. Additionally, Imamura's portrayal of the lower classes and, as he put it, their "lower parts," are at times salacious and violent, but almost always interesting.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice, Pigs And Battleships

Video: 89
Audio: 87
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile, Pigs And Battleships

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
• English (CC)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Pigs And Battleships

• French TV Episode
• Interview
• Booklet

Scales of Justice, The Insect Woman

Video: 92
Audio: 86
Extras: 90
Acting: 96
Story: 96
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile, The Insect Woman

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
• English (CC)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Insect Woman

• Conversation
• Booklet

Scales of Justice, Intentions Of Murder

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 88
Story: 85
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile, Intentions Of Murder

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
• English (CC)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Intentions Of Murder

• Conversation
• Booklet

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