Saturday, January 28, 2012

Yojimbo (1961) - #52

I'll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die.

Because I'd seen Yojimbo before, and thought it was a pretty fine film based on that original viewing several years ago, I wasn't quite prepared to be as thoroughly impressed, even overwhelmed, as I was after watching it again, a few more times, over the past week. Part of my enhanced assessment of Yojimbo's greatness is due to my first impression being unknowingly diminished by watching it in a badly letterboxed format on my old 27" CRT TV. Even with the decent job that Criterion did in upgrading the Yojimbo/Sanjuro box set from their original DVD release, I wasn't able to sufficiently appreciate Kurosawa's masterful widescreen compositions until I had a chance to see it on HDTV in Blu-ray - and I can only hope to have the chance to check it out on the big screen in a theater some day. But even more crucially, watching Yojimbo now, after I've made my way through all of the available-on-DVD  Kurosawa films he made preceding this one, simply leaves me gape-jawed as I marvel at the great Japanese director's ability to set an objective for himself, his cast and his crew, then go right out and achieve it in such a way as to alter the course of cinematic history afterward.

By this point in his career, Akira Kurosawa could have easily, and without deserving admonishment, taken a comfortable path of least resistance, cranking out formulaic pictures of just about whatever sort came easily to him. But his restless creative ambition wouldn't allow that. Even as the Japanese film scene was going through a process of upheaval, with new voices and visions emerging from a generation just coming of age, Kurosawa found a way to break new ground, not content to let his trail of 1950s classics do the talking for him when facing the challenge of upstart rivals. The provocative roiling instigated by directors such as Nagisa Oshima, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, among others, clearly signaled a new era in Japan's cinema, but Kurosawa was still at the top of his game, as Yojimbo clearly demonstrated. Not only him - Yasujiro Ozu was operating at an exalted plane of artistic perfection, Mikio Naruse was at the height of his powers and Masaki Kobayashi had just established a firm foothold at the summit with his epic work on The Human Condition. This was an artistically verdant time indeed in Japan's movie culture.

As much as I enjoy and applaud the works just cited, I think it goes fairly without debate that Kurosawa's achievements in Yojimbo left a deeper, broader and longer lasting impact than any other film produced in Japan during this era. It turned out to be the most financially lucrative and widely popular movie he ever made. It served as a template for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, basically launching the "spaghetti Western" subgenre and putting Clint Eastwood on his path to stardom that continues to bear fruit to this day (regardless of the dismal consensus generated by his most recent effort J. Edgar.) More crucially than that, I think a case can be made that Yojimbo essentially solidified the archetype of the modern antihero persona, a rootless drifter without a past or future, no relational entanglements to tie him down and unfettered freedom to fight or move on however he pleases, that is now so widely utilized in contemporary cinema that it's hard to imagine it ever having a specific beginning point in the not-so-distant past.

Of course there are precursors to Yojimbo's innovative blend of unfettered lethality, cocky insubordination and casual indifference whatever harsh reversals fate may have in store for him at the next moment of conflict. Maybe others who've done more research into the topic than I have can make the case more persuasively than I will here, but the lack of nobility and humility shown by Sanjuro, the wandering samurai who takes it upon himself to deal cold calamity upon the wretched gangsters he stumbles upon in his travels, marks a definitive break from more traditional hero figures who were routinely driven by an earnest moral impulse that never makes its presence felt here. An apt comparison from the samurai genre would be Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy that Yojimbo's star Toshiro Mifune began seven years earlier. In those films, the protagonist Musashi Miyamoto was a relative paragon of virtue, despite the deadly efficiency with which he wielded his sword. By contrast, Kuwabatake Sanjuro marks a further plunge into cynicism somewhere past Musashi's self-denying idealism and the grim, duty-bound general Mifune played in The Hidden Fortress three years prior to Yojimbo. As great as those performances were (and let's throw in his turns Tajomaru in Rashomon and Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai while we're at it,) Yojimbo turned out to be Mifune's career-defining role, one that he was called upon to reprise in the sequel Sanjuro, and more indirectly in the 1970 spinoff, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.

That's quite a bit said about Yojimbo's legacy without saying all that much about the film itself. My presumption here is that this is probably one of the most widely seen titles in the Criterion Collection, but in case you need a summary, here's one: The nameless protagonist, who impulsively names himself Sanjuro a third of the way into the film, is introduced with suitably awesome opening theme music and filmed from behind as he makes his way down a dirt path through the wilderness. Here's the American version of the opening credits (not available in the Criterion editions,) complete with a bit of spoonfed written introduction to set the stage:


Coming to a crossroads, he impulsively tosses a stick in the air and directs his steps in the direction it happened to point toward after landing. That trail leads him to a miserable little frontier town, circa late-1800s, that's being overrun by two competing gangs. Though Sanjuro has no serious intentions of settling down for the long haul, he needs to make a little money and get a bit of food in his gut. So he offers his services as a yojimbo (the Japanese word for bodyguard) to the gang bosses, smartly playing them off against each other as he patiently awaits the time when he can unleash his killer swordplay skills to dispatch the whole wretched lot of them. It's a task he calmly anticipates, becoming only more dedicated to its completion as he endures a hard beating, numerous taunts and despicable betrayals by the men who pledge their support to his face but plot his murder behind his back.

Criterion's commentary track is loaded with historical footnotes and detailed explanations of Sanjuro's martial techniques, Kurosawa's camera placements, the jaunty musical soundtrack composed by Masaru Sato and the disruptive cultural shifts that Japan went through as the nation transitioned from a rice-based to a money-based economy in the latter half of the 19th century. Stephen Prince's observations are helpful and well-informed to the extent that one is interested in the plethora of topics he raises, but Yojimbo is first and foremost an invigorating, highly entertaining blockbuster meant to be enjoyed on its own terms, before the scholars and critics start carving it up. Featuring a memorable first collaboration between Kurosawa and future mainstay Tatsuya Nakadai (taking on a villain role almost as an antidote to the excruciating martyrdom he personified so magnificently in The Human Condition) and appearances by faces familiar from many his earlier films, Yojimbo represents yet another mountain peak in the career of an artist capable of creating films of the most transcendent sort across a broad spectrum of dramatic settings. As averse as I generally am when it comes to listing my "favorite" movies, directors, etc., I don't think I can name a film maker who has impressed me more profoundly with the consistent excellence and grandeur of his works. Other Kurosawa titles hit more sublime and profound philosophical notes than this one, I'll make that clear. But this is the one that I think makes the best first introduction for a novice, and I doubt it can be beat in terms of the sheer confidence of its execution.

Among other notable highlights, Yojimbo stands out prominently among mainstream films of the era in its willingness to push blood and gore in the face of its audience, with severed limbs, spurting blood and rapacious killing sprees not only portrayed in greater graphic detail than most viewers of its time had ever seen, but also with dark comic effect. Kurosawa's boundary-pushing may not be as apparent when viewed by today's audience, accustomed as we are to that sort of bleak humor, but it's pretty noticeable, even when seen in the context of what his Japanese New Wave peers were doing as they explored the limits of permissible explicitness in their own way.


As Stephen Prince points out several times in his commentary, Yojimbo is a fantasy portrayal of a society that's gone badly off track but is at least partially capable of being restored by one tough, disciplined man who dispenses of the subtleties and takes care of business without stopping too long to ponder more diplomatic or merciful options. Reflecting the contempt for gangster values that informed his previous film The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa concocted a persona that dropped deadly vengeance on the crooked scumbags intent on exploiting the rest of us honest, law-abiding working class types. Given the corruption and fecklessness of so many around us, especially those who seem to have the most control over resources and their distribution, it's no wonder that a freewheeling character like Sanjuro continues to exert such a powerful attraction, and spawn so many imitators even to this day.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Blast of Silence (1961) - #428

They all hate the gun they hire. When people look at you, baby boy Frankie Bono, they see death. Death across the counter. Remembering... Remembering...

Though Blast of Silence begins with birth imagery (impermeable darkness save for a single pinprick of light that eventually expands to become the open mouth of a subway tunnel,) the film plays out like a mournful final reminiscence, that trembling awful moment of helpless remorse experienced by sad lost souls as they realize their appointment with death is upon them and all that comes to mind is a flood of regrets they are now powerless to address. A short, sordid peep over the shoulder of Frankie Bono, a hate-filled hit-man, sent on a job to kill a man he's never met but soon deeply despises based on nothing more than offense at his appearance, Blast of Silence has a lot going for it for film noir aficionados - vintage New York street-level cinematography, an acute visual sensibility deriving from its director/writer/star's background in comic book illustration, as existentially bleak and dour an outlook as one could ever ask from the genre, an evocative and varied musical soundtrack capturing cool jazz, rolling marimbas and conga beats of the era. The atmosphere is dank and the characters are, without exception, rough hewn, taking us on a harsh plunge into some down and dirty business that delivers many gratifying moments when you're in one of those moods to wallow in alienation and self-serving rejection of all things warm, fuzzy and sentimental. But what lingers longest in my imagination, a couple days after watching it through for the second time, is the palpably ashen aftertaste of a life wasted and acutely aware of its own predestined failure from the moment of first encounter with the cold hostile world it dropped into.


The most unique characteristic of the film, both then and now, is the use of an unattributed second-person narrator (as demonstrated in the lead quote above.) The speaker is never revealed, and his perspective remains mysterious as it speaks in mocking tones to Frankie, tossing off incisively withering taunts with just a tinge of sarcasm and irony. Is it a "Voice of God," rendering a Judgement Day closing argument as if to prove Frankie deserved the damnation that collapsed upon him after he flawlessly - except for one slight wobble and an unplanned execution - carried out his murderous  commission? Is the Voice that of Frankie himself, an outgrowth of his inner conflicts that divides him against himself? Either could be the case, since the Voice knows things about Frankie that no other human ever would - painful memories, trivial bits of information that would lie dormant in the subconscious until triggered into awareness by odd inexplicable associations with seemingly insignificant events.


The corrosive litany of contempt, projected toward his connections, his past and future victims, the crowds of nameless strangers he weaves through... the mantric repetition of words like "hate" and "remembering"... the circuitous pacing, clandestine driving, and aimless time-consuming wander down cold, windswept streets ... the ritualistic invocation of "Baby Boy Frankie Bono" even though by now he's a grown man, now dreadfully nearer the end of his days than he quite imagines (though inwardly welcomes and is ready for, so he thinks)... the derisive congratulatory salutation, "that's just how you like it"... smug, malicious jabs about roads in life not taken, delusional notions of careers as an architect, an engineer... all delivered with a sneering wise-guy lilt by the Voice. These characteristics all point to a fractured, self-absorbed infantilism that gnawed at the core of Frankie's being. Unmet needs that go way back in his life, a back story only hinted at as the anti-hero recalls his youth spent in an orphanage much like the one he spies from his perch atop the building where he waits to fulfill his contract. Blast of Silence, an deceptively quiet little film that was quickly lost in the endless shuffle of popular entertainments, full of iconic urban wasteland imagery, calmly plucks its deep psychological notes like the bass player fingering his strings in the Village Gate nightclub, proving to be more dangerous and devastating to the fraudulent attainments of middle class prosperity than one might imagine at first glance. Frankie Bono is out there, watching and waiting for that moment when your guard is dropped, your protection is parked out on the street, when you're more vulnerable than you'll ever realize... until it's too late.


Next: Yojimbo

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Human Condition Part 3 (1961) - #480

The country you were taught to know will be dead... and that's how it should be.

After filming the first two parts of The Human Condition (No Greater Love and The Road to Eternity) in close succession, Masaki Kobayashi and his crew took a well-deserved and presumably much needed respite from their labors before undertaking the task of shooting the excruciating finale, A Soldier's Prayer. Given Kobayashi's faithful adaptation of the popular novel on which the films were based, everyone involved - cast, crew and audience - knew they were in for a gut-wrenching ordeal when the time came to put the remainder of poor Private Kaji's sad story on screen for the ages. A substantial break, not to mention a lot of planning and technical coordination, was needed to bring this magnificent (though draining) epic to its devastating conclusion. After taking viewers on a journey through forced labor camps, military exercises and front-line battles in the first seven hours of the trilogy, A Soldier's Prayer thrusts us into the brutal aftermath of the Pacific War, as Kaji and various companions scratch their way through tangled forests, barren deserts, refugee hideouts and a Soviet P.O.W. camp, persistently struggling to stay one step ahead of death's shadow for the simple sake of witnessing another day.

Murder, starvation, imprisonment, suicide, depression, abandonment, isolation and betrayal. Debasing shame and humiliation, loss of hope, groveling in filth, fire and freezing snow... deprivations of every sort imaginable - even inconsolable screaming babies in the middle of the night! - all this and more press down relentlessly upon our protagonist and his unfortunate fellow survivors of Japan's disastrous defeat after its occupation of Manchuria. The spectacle is riveting, the cinematography luminous in its horrific splendor, and every performance impeccably captures the unique angles on misery experienced by soldiers, peasants, old men, young women, confused and innocent children as they scramble over the war-swept plains in their visceral fight for life.

I don't know if the casting for A Soldier's Prayer had already taken place prior to the release of the earlier sections, but the appearance in this last part of a pair of familiar actors, Chishu Ryu and Hideko Takamine, whom I highly respect from their work with Ozu and Naruse, seems to indicate that the success and massive sweep of the trilogy made it an attractive project for high-profile performers, the kind they like to have on their resume, even if it's just a bit part. Certainly, the list of acting credits included in this handsome box set is among the longest one will find among any Criterion films, and I imagine that others more familiar with Japanese cinema of the late 1950s find it a fascinating "who's who" of actors from that period. 



In the meantime, The Human Condition's first two installments went on to become box office sensations in Japan, establishing Tatsuya Nakadai as a major star for years to come. The process that led to him landing the role of Kaji, and his later-in-life musings on the impact that role had on his career and personal development, are given good long looks on the supplemental features disc included with this package. It was a coveted role with many aspiring actors in pursuit, but Kobayashi saw something special in Nakadai, who hadn't done all that much to distinguish himself from the pack up to that point and seemed mystified by his selection both before and after the production wrapped up. The story goes that in his screen test, Nakadai made a certain facial expression, one capturing the crazed delirium that overtook Kaji at the conclusion of The Human Condition, that sealed the decision.


There's no doubt that Kobayashi got it right. Nakadai absolutely emptied himself in order to take on Kaji's metamorphosis from a stubborn, intellectualized and ultimately self-serving idealist to the haunted, shell-shocked and war ravaged soul who knew no rest in his pursuit of a reunion with his wife Michiko. The physical ordeals he underwent as an actor included weeks of boot-camp intensity military training, as well as taking real beatings from his fellow actors in various fight scenes and coming close to clinical hypothermia as he laid motionless on the ground in an actual snowstorm in the film's conclusion.

No less demanding than the hardships he experienced in the varied geographic settings of The Human Condition was the intense psychic and emotional topography he had to navigate as we see Kaji gradually but inexorably reduced by circumstances and grief to a staggering husk of a man. In that process, he's still called upon to be a leader and a protector of those who look up to him, and to most observers there's no obvious fault to be found in how he discharges his duties, guiding his various companions through hostile forests, dangerous homesteads inhabited by vengeful Chinese peasants, barren deserts and innumerable other dangers. And yet Kaji finds himself repeatedly facing situations in which his noble convictions and simple reverence for life are forcibly compromised or sometimes simply overwhelmed by the furious emotions stirred up by an overload of stress and futility.

Part 3 opens with him carrying out a premeditated act of murder in order to help his companions avoid detection by an enemy patrol. Near the end, Kaji kills again in raw vengeance, falling far short of his lofty principled pacifism of just a few years earlier. Conscious of his failures throughout, Kaji's quest is to achieve some sort of redemption, some way of atoning for the disappointments and squandered opportunities that he knows are attributable only to him. As admirably heroic as Kaji may be when comparing his deeds to the conduct of others around him, he's much more complex and intricately rendered than your standard war-movie protagonist. That's partly due to the fact that we spend so much time seeing the war through Kaji's eyes - this is a nearly 10 hour movie in which the main character dominates almost every scene, after all. But Kobayashi's deep grasp of Kaji's motivations, and his courageous exposition of the man's irreconcilable interior conflicts, makes Kaji a truly transcendent figure who convincingly embodies some of the most troubling yet invigorating characteristics of human nature.

As I've said in my reviews of the first two parts, there's more breadth and levity to our common "human condition" than this monumental work chooses to portray, but in giving a profound articulation of the power that love and a quest for moral purity can exert in resistance to extreme hardship, after the idols of nationalism and political ideology have been stripped of their delusional powers, A Soldier's Prayer is practically without peer. The high artistry and depth of detail that went into its production adds to the sobering inspiration that this masterpiece delivers.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pigs and Battleships (1961) - #472

Japan is a beautiful country with a unique culture, able to incorporate the finer practices and customs of other countries.

Judging from just about every review I've read, including the Criterion Collection's booklet essay included in the DVD, it seems almost obligatory, when writing about Shohei Imamura's breakthrough film Pigs and Battleships, to present him in stark contrast to the venerable Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. That's largely owing to his experience working with Ozu upon first entering Japan's film industry, assisting him on a trio of important films of the early 1950s, including Early Summer and Tokyo Story. Despite their working relationship in that formative stage of Imamura's career, or more likely, in reaction to what that work produced and how it was received, Imamura went on to make films that mark a severe departure from the refined and elegant traditional Japanese style that Ozu epitomized. Imamura was far from alone in making provocative, iconoclastic Japanese films at this time - Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, Koreyoshi Kurahara and others were quite busy pushing the limits of cinematic boundaries as well - but his influence and reputation continued to grow as the decade went on. Pigs and Battleships wasn't his first directorial effort, but it's the one that set his work apart from the pack, landing him in a bit of trouble with his employers at Nikkatsu Studio but confirming his determination to forge a path of presenting his vision of "cultural anthropology" on film.

So though I run the risk of sounding like an imitator, in my case, comparisons between Imamura and Ozu can hardly be avoided, since I first watched Pigs and Battleships a little over a week ago, hard on the heels of viewing Ozu's 1960 film Late Autumn. The two films sit in close succession on the time line of Criterion films I'm working through, and as deeply impressed as I was to see Ozu's mature artistry on display so near to the end of his career, I think watching such a disparate work from the same nation, released just a couple months later, benefited my viewing of each, helping me to better appreciate them both, but for drastically different reasons. Imamura certainly had a legitimate point in wanting to demonstrate that Japanese life in 1961 consisted of so much more than the quiet, deeply internalized and genteel relational dilemmas that preoccupied Ozu (and continue to make his films so interesting and accessible to many people who live outside of his time and social context.) While Ozu's work between the late 40s and early 60s does provide evidence of the growing affluence and increased stability of postwar Japan, there were huge issues that his aesthetic approach led him to avoid or at most to address with indirect glances. And one of them was the ongoing American military presence in some parts of Japan, such as the United States Fleet Activities base in Yokosuka, located just south of Tokyo. The site was first occupied by American forces in August 1945, just after Japan's surrender, and soon became a major naval outpost that remains under US control to this day. While the presence of foreign sailors and the impact they exert on the local community there provides the backdrop for Pigs and Battleships, Japanese citizens are Imamura's primary focus, and it turns out to be a raw, wildly funny but also unsettling and disturbing portrait of that society - despite the opening disclaimer that This Story is Entirely Fictional.

After a few establishing shots of the base accompanied by jarringly familiar "patriotic" sounding American music, we're plunged immediately into the sleazy little neighborhoods surrounding the outpost, where sailors take their shore leave maneuvering past the prying eyes of military police patrols and two-bit hustlers looking to get them drunk, hook them up with good-time girls and loosen up their wallets. Though Imamura wasn't intending to market his films outside his natural audience, seeing our men in uniform as viewed through Japanese eyes was pretty novel and illuminating for me, even if they were never really developed as full-fledged characters in the script. I couldn't help thinking about my dad, who was stationed in Japan as a young Marine corporal right around this time, just a few months before I was born, and probably witnessed (or participated!) in some of the shenanigans that went on around the base. To the Yokosuka locals, the American presence is just a source of fresh and readily available cash, an exploitable resource sitting there for the taking. And it's in this seedy milieu that we first meet Kinta, an aspiring hoodlum who's pledged himself to a local gang involved in supplying pork to the Americans, as well as other, more overtly corrupt shakedowns and petty turf wars. He's a cocky brat, running around town bare-chested with a silk jacket embroidered with "Japan" in English lettering on the back, dark aviator sunglasses and brandishing a sideways baseball cap. Too willing to ingratiate his way up the criminal ranks, he's the perfect patsy - young, dumb and impulsive enough to take on whatever crap assignment nobody else in the gang wants to handle themselves.

Kinta's got a girlfriend, Haruko, who works for her family's restaurant but dreams of something more stable and and honest, though not necessarily as lucrative. Her aspirations are for marriage and family, sustained by a solid factory job. They're both naive, just emerging from late adolescence, right on the cusp of making those young adult decisions that will steer their destinies almost irrevocably from that point forward, yet typically oblivious to the big picture and utterly at the mercy of their emotions and impulses of the moment. For Kinta, his desire to score points with the gangsters overrides Haruko's numerous appeals to straighten up his act and not become a stooge - but he sure has the hots for his gal, and amidst all the jostling, strutting and conflicts that unfold so rapidly throughout Pigs and Battleships, Imamura throws in enough scenes of tender, innocent infatuation to remind us just how deeply over their heads these two unfortunate young lovers really are.

The plot machinations of Pigs and Battleships are too intricate, or just plain confusing, to bother summarizing here, and the substance of the film doesn't require a viewer to closely follow each lurid transaction or dirty double-cross that propels the characters from one crisis to the next in order to assimilate Imamura's message. The impact comes from watching how Kinta and Haruko in particular respond to the hard blows of circumstance that hit them from all angles. They're both powerless peons at the bottom of Yokosuka's exploitative hierarchy. Kinta's asked to take the fall for his gang boss if a murder rap comes down after a rival is knocked off, and he overcomes his goggle-eyed revulsion at having to help dispose of the body with nervous pulls from the whiskey flask tossed his way. Strung along by his fellow gangsters as much for their amusement as for actually advancing their criminal enterprise, Kinta throws himself ever more recklessly into his outlaw persona with thuggish joviality, bashing merchandise, blustering threats to shop owners and tossing around money that's not his as he lives out his notion of what it means to be a big shot. But the reckless swagger he musters is belied by his kindhearted concern for neighbors less fortunate than him. What he surmises to be the harmless theft of a few young piglets gets him in trouble with one of his bosses, until that boss learns that the kid isn't so much a scammer out to rip off the gang as he's really just a kid with enough shreds of conscience intact that he's sincerely willing to help people he cares about for altruistic motives.

Haruko, for her part, loves her man more than she loves the promises of easy money and material luxury he likes to promise her. But she's not immune to the fascinations that emanate from Yokosuka's illicit pastimes, ultimately trying her hand at prostitution as an act of defiance against her disappointing boyfriend, her money-grubbing family and the stultifying conditions she's subjected to. Simultaneously scorning and emulating the example of her sister, the proverbial gold digger who's hooked up with a Japanese-American and contemplates moving with him to the USA, Haruko briefly sets aside her scruples and lets herself go wild, giving herself over for a night of "fun" with three drunk and horny Americans. In capturing the scene, Imamura's swirling overhead camera simulates the inescapable and nauseating vortex of confusion and dread that overtakes Haruko as she finds herself trapped in a situation way beyond her control. But there's no time for her to wallow in victimhood. The room stops spinning, she seizes a brash opportunity to get a small slice of revenge, which quickly blows up on her, leading to pursuit by raging sailors in underwear, a harsh smackdown and her arrest, ultimately snapping Haruko back to her senses as she realizes the futility of traveling further down that path of abandonment.

Beyond Imamura's frantic forays through a modern rendition of The Lower Depths, we're drawn into some ruminations on Japan's strained relationships with some of its Asian neighbors, as represented by Chinese and Korean racketeers all working their own angles in the pork game. The tensions probably have more resonance with viewers closer to that context than I am, but these scenes cast a dark ironic light on the quote that leads off this essay, read from a school textbook by Haruko's little brother in the aftermath of an ugly catfight between his older sisters. As his voice-over continues extolling Japan's cultural virtues, we see pigs in a crate being towed through the squalid streets of Yokosuka, contradicting all standing notions we may have about tranquil zen gardens, elegant calligraphy, cherry blossoms and meditative tea ceremonies as emblems of that great civilization. And if that gritty come-down isn't enough, there's this, the most memorable and defining sequence of Pigs and Battleships that works pretty well on its own simply for its outrageous visuals, even for those who don't really have any clue as to why the young man is brandishing a machine gun, shooting out the neon and ultimately turning his porcine cargo loose into Yokosuka's red light district:


But after that blazing climactic scene, in which Kinta's fate is tragically sealed, we still have to see how things wind up with Haruko, and her exit is indisputably the most noble and admirable gesture of the entire film, though it consists of nothing more than striding upstream against the current of a flock of addle-brained Japanese women streaming toward the docks waiting to greet a new arrival of American seamen. Haruko, recognizing that everything taking place within the confines of Yokosuka is saturated with the slime of raw exploitation, has nothing better to offer as her alternative than hopping the next train out of town. Rather than endure one more ripoff or pin her hopes to some foolish man waiting to either fall victim to a scam or be the victimizer himself, she takes a chance on self-determination. We don't know where that train will take her, or if the scene she lands in will be all that much different than what she left behind, qualitatively speaking. Unlike the pigs peddled by the gangs and eaten by the Yanks, Haruko recognizes what awaits her if she just sits still and lets herself be passively consumed. Her only alternative is to adopt the hardened exterior and the merciless determination so characteristic of the steel-clad battleships always looming in the background as they float unchallenged upon the waters of Tokyo Bay.

CriterionCast Review of La notte