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Sabu masterfully helms a floating canning factory

by Mizuho Aoki

After debuting as a writer/director in 1996 with “D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner,” a kinetic comedy of three men chasing each other around, Sabu has been a regular on international film circuits, and is especially liked by the Berlin International Film Festival where he has had six films screened in the past, of which two, “Monday” and “Kofuku no Kane,” won awards.

For his 10th film, the actor-turned-director picked up “Kani Kosen,” Takiji Kobayashi’s famous proletarian novel from 1929. The novel, which depicts the hardships and revolts of exploited workers on a cannery ship in the Sea of Okhotsk, off the coast of Siberia, has struck a chord with young part-time and temporary workers, enjoying a revival last year and selling some 600,000 copies in 2008.

Sabu got an offer to make the adaptation in the midst of the so-called “Kani Kosen boom,” and the timing was perfect for him.

“I was in a situation where I needed to board on the crab cannery ship myself,” jokes Sabu at an interview with The Japan Times. “It was after new film projects fell through that I was asked to make this film.”

Had you read the novel before you got the offer to make this film?

No, I read “Kani Kosen” for the first time after I talked with this film’s producer. Then, when I read it, I thought the storyline is actually similar to what I’ve been depicting in my films — starting from somewhere negative and ending just before reaching something.

Also, the setting sounded interesting. A canning factory on a ship, I’ve never seen such a thing before; I thought I could make something very unique.

Your film is very different from Kobayashi’s novel. You lightened the book’s gloomy atmosphere with stylish visuals and your signature black humor.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think people want to spend their free time watching something devastating or filthy. I personally don’t want to see that.

So you want to entertain audiences?

Yes. This movie is different from the novel. I wanted to make an entertaining, and also an inspiring film.

One of the major differences from the novel is that you created the charismatic leader Shinjo, who heads the workers’ revolt against the boss Asakawa, where in the book, the workers are anonymous and depicted as masses.

I wanted to depict all the workers as the film’s protagonists at first. But then when I read the book, thinking about the flow of the story, I thought those fishermen who come back to the ship from Russia with stories to tell are probably the story’s lead characters. So, I developed Shinjo’s character from them.

But I didn’t want Shinjo to be a hero; I wanted him to be someone who’s rather disliked by the others but has some kind of charm. Shinjo is not someone who willingly tries to change the environment he is in; He somehow ends up in that position by chance. I don’t want people to wish for a leader like Shinjo. People need to think by themselves.

One of the most memorable and Sabu-esque comical scenes is where the crews attempt to commit mass suicide — which is your original idea.

I wanted to impart something of myself in the film. In a way it is a very tense situation; but at the same time there is something comical about it. Bringing together tension and laughs is something I’m good at. People who study Kobayashi’s works may get angry though. (laughs)

The film is full of direct and straightforward lines — like in the speeches Shinjo makes, he repeats the lines like “don’t give up” “stand up” and “do away with fixed ideas.”

I think the best way to deliver messages to audiences is to keep them straight forward. Those lines can only be said under such extreme circumstances; otherwise it’s just embarrassing.

And I included many such lines, hoping some of them will stay in audiences’ mind.

I believe those messages are intended for young people.

Yes. I want young people to see this film and get something out of it.

Nothing is going to change if people just lament over the situations they are in. Each individual need to think once again about what they want and take action.