Japanese submarines, pigs and crab meat



In the past one of the most militaristic societies, a nation of warriors led by bushido for centuries and an aggressive Asian colonial power at the beginning of the XX century, Japan can be considered today a peaceful and non-belligerent society, at least in theory. The dealings about the Futenma base in Okinawa with their American allies and their nuclear-umbrella protection, as well as the realistic development of a euphemistically-called “self defense forces” army contrast with a population raised in the idea of peace and the evil of war.

Having suffered the bombing of their main cities and the total annihilation of 2 of them by those same allies, the new generations have chosen to forget or at least to deceive the pain and keep it tucked away in their hearts to be able to continue life. The characters in Shohei Imamura’s film 豚と軍艦 Pigs and Battlefield (1961) live in a post-war Yokosuka (small port south of Yokohama), “occupied” by the marines, whom they despise; but they need them for a living and eventually the loathing becomes admiration. The film sourly shows a defeated country with a wounded national economy and a city-port transformed into a brothel for US GIs, degradation common to other Asian cities in previous years. In the void-of-power but booming new economic society trying to do business with the winner of the War, yakuza Japanese gangsters struggle for those opportunities of making fast and easy money, the same way young Japanese girls feel attracted by a life of affluent parties, nice dresses, alcohol and music on board of the American warships.

Only a few years before, the Japanese submarines were fighting against American destroyers in the Pacific, a decisive battlefield in WWII. The more recent film 真夏のオリオン Last Operations Under The Orion (2009) shows a balance between patriotic self-sacrifice and antimilitarism. Its disapproval of the use of 回天 kaiten submarine kamikazes, manned torpedoes against the American battleships, is represented by the young Japanese captain’s refusal to use them, demanding a fair fight. And the Americans –who also entered the production of the film-, are depicted as a relentless but humanized enemy. The end of the war will be taken by the Japanese crew as a relief and the beginning of the reconciliation.

Back in time but also recent in film is 蟹工船 Kanikosen (2009), a remake of a 1953 film and based on the homonymous proletariat novella written by Takiji Kobayashi in 1929 –by coincidence translated into Spanish by my sempai Jordi Juste-, which to a bolder antimilitarism adds the denounce of social injustice. We are now in 1904 at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, and a Japanese factory-boat sails in Kamchatka’s waters to fish and process crab meat. Young actor Ryuhei Matsuda –much more virile than in his also memorable performance at 御法度 Gohatto (1999)- stands as the spontaneous leader of the uprising on board. The connivance between the military and the private company owning the factory-boat for the sake of profit and an ulterior bribe clearly relates to the exploitation suffered by the young and illiterate overworking crew. In the film, 2 workers get lost in a small boat in the sea but they are saved by the Russian “enemy”, a merchant ship whose seamen teach them a more humanized and democratic relationship between employers and employees. The awareness of their own oppression will trigger the rebellion back on their boat, with fatal but unavoidable consequences.

The 3 movies have their own love stories too: in Orion, the captain’s girlfriend –indeed his best friend’s sister- has pledged to wait for him no matter what. And he goes back, but not the brother, who dies at the bottom of the ocean after a more than implausible conversation in Morse with his friend and brother-in-law. In Kanikosen, stories of childhood girlfriends are mixed with the desire to belong to a happy and wealthy family full of harmony, the dream of the underclass, a Kimura family idyllically represented by cheerfully playing ball in white suits and hats in an Edenic garden. In Pigs and Battlefields, the young, beautiful and strong-willed Haruko is young chinpira Kinta’s motivation to improve. He dreams of becoming a big yakuza boss and looks with contempt the factory work that he is constantly offered by his girl-friend; the smuggling of pigs represents a dirtier but much more profitable activity, but to what price?

These are films that reveal a fictitious but more or less historical panorama of Japan, not so distant in time but far in quality life and freedom compared to these days. They are also an ideological lesson about what could happen again in the event of the rising of the military and/or the break of another big war.

Is a criminal’s family also criminal?



My childhood friend Aguinaco, already a grown-up paterfamilias, used to stress how much he detested films with subtitles because they prevented him from focusing on the story and the images. He called them derogatorily “libropelículas” (book-movies). No matter how hard I tried to sell him the benefits of a film in original version, as far as I know, he never changed his mind.

The other day I went to see a libropelícula, but this time, it was even more special: the subtitles not only repeated the dialogues –they were in the same language, Japanese, not in translation- but they also explained background noises and scenery; and the characters’ mute actions were related by a neutral narrator’s voice. All this was meant for the deaf and the blind, a 30% of the audience at this peculiar movie theater.

At the beginning, it felt a bit disrupting, but once you got used to the different voices, it was even rewarding, especially for non-native speakers like me, a similar experience to reading a book and watching the movie at the same time. The professional work had been made by a NGO call 京都リップル, Kyoto Ripple, whose staff and volunteers decide on matters such as the timing and the content of the narration by the robotic –for not to be mistaken with one of the characters’- voice in off. This unusual process is the closest you can get to a limited-knowledge but very reliable 3rd person narrator in a book. I wonder how this “reading” of the movie would affect to the literary theories of Reader-Response, especially when a non-deaf non-blind watcher-reader sees the film and is continually confronted with what she is watching, listening and reading.

As for the story and the reflection that it stimulates, there is no waste at all in 手紙 Tegami Letters: a man accidentally kills an old woman when breaking into her house and steal money to pay for his younger brother’s school fees and he is incarcerated. The younger brother quits school and struggles through life in society being always tagged as a convict’s relative.

The trite topic of family responsibility in the Japanese society, 義理 giri, is cast a new light with this movie, which mixes aspects such as discrimination –whether if it’s for reasons of money, class, or even the past-, the penitentiary system –as if explained by Foucault– and the related possibility of rehabilitation for ex-convicts, including forgiveness.

Both brothers only correspond by written letters, hence the film’s title and a useful resource for people averse to communicate verbally, especially after the shame of having committed a despicable act. They keep a mutual but unbalanced dependence relationship through these letters, which symbolize the younger brother Naoki’s one of the many pay-backs for his elder brother’s crime because, as he finds on the screen of his computer when searching about penal information: 犯罪者の家族も犯罪です A criminal’s family is also criminal, which becomes a motif in the film, ultimately trying to denounce the discrimination at personal and professional level for a family-related past event. However, as a different character wisely tells him in another scene: 差別は当たり前ですよ Discrimination is a natural thing, a spontaneous reaction from human beings, as a self-defense immediate response to danger. And he continues: “But the answer is not to run away. You have to stay, face it and live with it”. Eventually, they will change their minds, he seems to be suggesting.

Like the children in the film, manichaeistically raised in the fear of the “evil” by those マザーコン over-protective mothers, who forbid them to play with a “marked” child or flee at the sight of the rejected mother, our societies need many more examples like this one to teach us the human side of family, tragedy and crime.

I wish my good friend Aguinaco had seen this libropelícula, too. He would have felt moved like most of the audience watching this interesting cycle of Japanese society-related films.

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Literatura, opinión y otros habaneceres, porque habanecer es una perspectiva, un estado de ánimo, un vicio de la memoria