Given the current socio-economic climate in Japan and the industry’s ability to push a film from conception to release much quicker than their Hollywood counterparts, it’s no shock to discover that proletarian writer Kobayashi Takiji’s pre-Second World War agitprop novel has gained some new traction. Kanikosen – literally The Crab Cannery Boat – is the best-known work by the writer who died in police custody, and the story’s fundamental anti-capitalist diatribe has an eerie relevancy that’s difficult not to empathise with.
Enter Sabu, he of the loopy action-comedy (Hard Luck Hero) and, more recently, sensitive meditations on modern life (Dead Run). He may not seem like the logical choice to direct what nearly amounts to a didactic clarion call for the working class, but Sabu’s dark sense of humour and willingness to force the material to currency arguably make him the best choice. And he’s clearly very, very pissed off. Kanikosen isn’t Sabu’s strongest film, but it’s certainly his most brazenly political, and it’s nice to see a working Japanese filmmaker make any sort of overt ideological statement – on any subject. It’s time to dispense with a system that sees the affluent few get that way off the backs of the over-worked masses, he states through the film. Enough’s enough.
The set-up is simple. A group of men slave away on a crab canning boat in service of The Emperor, whose representative on board is the abusive and unreasonably demanding Asakawa (Nishijima). While he extols the honour of toiling for the Empire, the truth of the matter is that while he and his cronies get fat the men on the boat live in filthy cramped quarters and barely earn enough to survive. Their only respite is in fantasies of the next life – which usually involve coming back as ‘management’. This is Sabu’s semi-comedic groundwork for the crew’s eventual labour action, and he steadfastly ignores historical accuracy (in speech, props, clothing) in favour of speaking to audiences that will be in the audience today. The rift between the classes in the early 20th century is meant to mirror the rift that’s widening now, and Sabu makes no apologies for it.
Once the film settles into its miserablist rhythm, the crew’s makeshift leader Shinjo (Matsuda) and a mate make an escape attempt. After seeing several other crabbers succumb to illness and death as a result of the working conditions, Shinjo decides he’s had his fill of being a cog in a wheel – one of the film’s recurring visual motifs. A Russian fishing trawler rescues the pair and it’s here that any subtlety flies out the window. The egalitarian (read Marxist) utopia the Russians live and work in is enough to inspire Shinjo to return, organise the crab workers and demand fair recognition for their labour.
In Kanikosen, Sabu is working in a post-modern, almost Brechtian, tone that’s far removed from the bonkers, high-octane kinetics of his earlier films. To a degree marrying the two aesthetics serves him well. The grandiosity of the crew’s final assault on their exploiters, the mass suicide gone awry and the careful shot compositions are instances where the right amount of absurdity draws attention to the underlying angry message and highlight the delicate balance Sabu has managed to strike between stagy and silly. It also signals Sabu’s continued growth as a filmmaker at a time when the Japanese industry is flailing artistically and no one has the cojones to say anything remotely challenging.