Hello, Film Experiencers! This is the rather-absent-of-late BeRightBack, posting a note from beneath the mountains of work I've been buried under for the past two months or so. As you may know, the Chicago International Film Festival is currently taking place in the Windy City. While I had been resigned to skipping it entirely this year, last night I was compelled to ignore my obligations and take in a Sunday night screening of Kanikôsen, the new movie by the Japanese director SABU.
Known for candy-colored, slapstick films like Hard Luck Hero and Drive that rely on the narrative force of a madcap chase to connect a series of inventive set-pieces and visual gags, SABU seemed a provocatively odd choice to remake the stern 1929 proletarian novella Kanikôsen by Kobayashi Takiji (the title is translated variously as "The Factory Ship" or "The Cannery Boat," although SABU has insisted that his film be distributed internationally under the untranslated title). How would the grimy realism and claustrophobic setting of Kobayashi's novella pair with SABU's irreverent, gag-dependent and speed-obsessed visual style?
Quite oddly indeed, as it turns out, though this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The film begins with one of SABU's trademark visual jokes, showing a bedraggled worker peeking out from below deck on the ship, presumably watchful for the approach of the cruel foreman from whom he's attempting to escape. Instead of a foreman, however, the threat arrives in the form of a huge net filled with crabs hanging suspended above his head, which comes crashing down as a set-up for the smash cut to the title card (蟹工船 - lit. "crab/factory/ship"), itself a visual that sums up in three ideograms the components of what we've just seen and will continue to see. It's a clever way to approach the material, finding an engaging visual shorthand to convey the novel's political metaphors while leavening them with humor to disarm the potential resistance the contemporary audience may have to the novel's dour, didactic tone.
This kind of thing continues throughout the first third of the film, but somewhere along the way, SABU seems to doubt the audience's ability to see the purpose behind his flippancy. He starts to remove the humor from the proceedings, and the film becomes a progressively more literal adaptation of the novel. At the same time, though, he brushes up against moments in the narrative that use the vocabulary of international proletarian collective action to show how the characters can escape their misery, but ends up shrinking back from their most radical implications.
For example, in the movie as in the novel, two characters try to escape only find themselves picked up by a neighboring Russian ship. The laborers' toil on the Japanese ship has been relentlessly aligned with beating that of the "enemy" Russian boat, and this is a moment in the story when our exploited Japanese workers see what's really happening there - which, in the novel, turns out to be a workforce engaging in communal labor that has meaning and benefit for the workers, free of exploitation. As idealized as such a view of Russian communism might seem from our smug, post-Cold War vantage point, in the context of 1920s Japan it held a potency as an alternative to the alignment of militarism and corporate interests that colluded to break up labor movements in the name of supporting the imperial war effort in the lead-up to WWII.
But SABU, making a movie in 2009, shies away from endorsing communism and instead turns the scene on the Russian boat into an intentionally absurd fantasia of dancing girls and feasting Cossacks - in short, turning a scene meant to show how labor can be satisfying when done for the benefit of all into a scene that fantasizes a world without labor at all, only dancing and free food. At the end of the scene, a clownish translator imparts a version of "Russian" ideology that studiously avoids the language of Marxist or even collective action and instead talks vaguely of "finding" oneself, implying that the revolution will come from a personal change in individual mindset without any call to recognize the larger structures of power underpinning the exploitation occurring on the Japanese boat.
This replacement of a vocabulary for collective action with lines that basically boil down to a carnivalesque version of The Secret robs the latter part of the film of its potential power. The film exchanges its witty, puckish tone at this point for a rather sentimental and humorless melodramatic re-enactment of many of the key scenes from the novel, but it nonetheless continues to skirt around any idea of international proletarian community and resistance. The problem with this is that the film has played many aspects of these characters' situations and misery for laughs already, so demanding that we suddenly take them seriously doesn't work - it makes the workers' personal stakes seem flimsy and the sudden incursion into realism seem like a just further exercise in style.
All the same, Kanikôsen is a fascinating reading of the current political and cultural situation in Japan. The recession that started in the beginning of the 1990s has resulted in the erosion of the ability of the corporatist state to guarantee employment to even its educated class, and Japanese books and films (like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's recent Tokyo Sonata, to take one example) have been increasingly pre-occupied with issues of labor as a result. Proletarian novels from the 1920s and 30s, which had gone largely unread in the 1970s and 80s, have undergone a revival as a younger generation grasps for an alternative theory of labor and nation following the collapse of Japan's economic "miracle" and its inextricable fusion of public and private capital; this film itself, in large part, is the result of Kobayashi's novel becoming a surprise bestseller during the last year. And in this context, even its incoherency seems productive. At the beginning of film, the character who has crabs dumped on his head is shown later walking sideways, crab-like, evoking Chaplin's character in Modern Times imitating the machines he works with all too literally; in both cases, it is a madness that, visually, tells a truth about the dehumanization endemic to industrialized labor. It is in these moments that point toward a possible visual language for dealing with the madness of the present moment, resulting in a movie whose parts end up signifying more than its rather garbled whole.