‘Kani Kosen’

All aboard! A voyage into the absurd

by Mark Schilling

Why does a novel about exploited workers on a crab cannery boat, published 80 years ago by a young communist writer, later tortured to death by the police, become a hot movie property now?

The program for “Kani Kosen” (“The Crab Cannery Boat”) explains that a store poster, inspired by Takiji Kobayashi’s eponymous novel, became a media sensation last year and, before you could say “bubble,” indie veteran Sabu scripted and directed a film.

“Kani Kosen,” however, is not another pop culture throwaway, made to capitalize on a fad. It is also not agiprop from another era, with nostalgic value only. In a time of deep recession, with the middle class fading out of reach for millions of young part-time and temporary workers, its advocacy of mass struggle sounds like a real-life call to action.

Not a cliched “clarion call,” though: Sabu has turned Kobayashi’s novel, described as a masterpiece of proletarian literature (though unread by me), into a stagey, ironic postmodern statement that puts air quotes around its characters’ righteous anger, while blithely tossing in anachronisms (such as present-day language, T-shirts and a battery-powered bullhorn). Points of comparison include Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville” (2003), Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006) and Miwa Ninagawa’s “Sakuran” (2007).

Kani Kosen
Director Sabu
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese

Critics took all these films to task for their distortion or disregard of social/historical facts — and I suppose Sabu’s will get a similar drubbing.

Not from me, though. No fan of Hollywood’s trashings of history through the ages, I’ve found myself more sympathetic than upset with these middle-finger salutes to conventional screen realism. Whatever their limitations, their directors have at least tried to reimagine done-to-death stories, with the audience of their own era in mind.

I can easily imagine an alternative “Kani Kosen,” made by an earnest lefty director in his 1960s or ’70s, with authentic period everything, from thick dialects to thin, ragged costumes for the bone-chilled cast. Everyone on screen would be emoting mightily, to make the director’s message crystal clear — and nearly everyone in the seats would be eligible for the senior discount. And I would be struggling to keep my eyes open.

It’s not that Sabu, who has long specialized in black comedies (as well as headlong chase sequences) has totally abandoned reality for a cutesy manga-land. The crab boat on which his fisherman hero, Shinjo (Matsuda), and his colleagues labor is a cramped, steamy hell on the high seas. Their boss, Asakawa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), is a handsome brute in a stained white coat, who spouts platitudes about work being “war” in the service of the Emperor and the nation, then lays into his employees-cum-slaves with curses and blows.

Seeing no hope — save in rebirth as an upper-class toff — Shinjo urges his comrades to commit mass suicide, but as persuasive as he is, his plan ends in a fiasco. Then Shinjo and a shipmate (Hirofumi Arai) find themselves lost at sea in a small boat. Rescued by a Russian ship, they gaze in wonder as the Russians, the foreman included, dance, drink and otherwise enjoy themselves in perfect equality and freedom. After this glimpse of classless heaven, Shinjo becomes determined to overthrow the king devil of his familiar hell: Asakawa.

Sabu stages this simple story as Theater of the Absurd. The crew’s sad tales of wretched poverty are presented, in flashback, as funny black-out sketches, while their mutiny, complete with theatrically bombastic speeches and waving flags, smacks more of Groucho Marx than Karl. But there is also a current of rage running through the film.

Similar, stronger currents were also present in the work of Pirandello, Ionesco, Genet and Beckett. Their Theater of the Absurd was a reaction to the horrors of the 20th Century, a witnessing to the limitless human capacity for cruelty. In their hands, irony was a sharp-pointed weapon.

Sabu is hardly their equal — he natters on, speechifying and posturing, where a Beckett would cut to the satirical bone. But he has also dared to suggest what has long been unthinkable here, save by a crazed radical few: Rebellion by the worked-to-death masses against the well-off classes that use and discard them like worn gears in the crab boat’s clanking machinery. “Kani Kosen” is a period film in name only.