Kanikosen -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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BUSAN, South Korea -- Imagine "Titanic" only with scenes in the steerage. That's the bleak and claustrophobic experience "Kanikosen" offers to make sense of the oppression and inevitable uprising of workers on a crab cannery ship in Imperialist Japan. Sabu's film adaptation of leftwing dissident Takiji Kobayashi's 1929 novel makes his point against capitalist exploitation clear, but manages to be experimental, absurdist and hip. Think remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" using "Dogville" as an aesthetic blueprint.

In Japan, the economic crisis has led to a so-called "Kanikosen boom" among the young working class, propelling reprints to bestseller status of more than 600,000 copies. This makes the film as sellable domestically as hotcakes. Elsewhere, it's a stylistically indefinable oddity that probably finds solidarity with festivals only.

Sabu's treatment of the novel's historical context is as figurative as a Brechtian lehrstuck. The interior decor of the ship is designed like a theater set, framed in abstract, largely static compositions that emphasize the monstrosity of the processing machines, especially their giant wheels (cogs being a running symbol for the workers.) The workers sleep inside concrete cylinders stacked like beds in capsule hotels. They speak contemporary slang in between outbursts of Marxist dialectics. Their uniforms are shiny black raincoats trendy enough for an avant garde dance troupe. The alienation effect keeps the film's stance from becoming rabble-rousing.

Sabu has given his original input by devising the character of Shinjo, who stumbles into the role of union leader on the ship. Casting Ryuhei Matsuda, who never plays a good guy straight without a satiric bite (like in "Nightmare Detective"), puts a human face on this communal struggle. His charismatic presence creates dramatic frizzon with Asakawa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the Fascist paramilitary foreman.

Sabu's other invention is a group suicide attempt. Shooting with shaky handheld and frenzied zooms to imitate the choppy sea, he choreographs the whole crew uniformly hanging themselves as both danse macabre and slapstick. It is the film's most stylish visual coup, literally loaded with gallows humor, especially when instigator Shinjo's argument is: "I want to decide my own fate."

Sabu applies the same comic tone to dramatize the turning point, when Shinjo sees the proletarian equality and plenitude enjoyed by Russians sailors, and reaches ideological enlightenment. The clownish representation of Cossak dance and a Chinese fortune-teller who looks like Fu Manchu gives the feeling that Sabu's irreverance has gone too far and tedious, and he himself does not seem convinced by the values.

Pusan International Film Festival -- A Wind on Asian Cinema

Sales: Fine Cut, Seoul
Production: IMJ Entertainment, Smoke and Dub production, Media Factory, Imagica
Cast: Ryuhei Matsuda, Hidetoshi Nishiima, Kengo Kora, Hirofumai Arai
Director-screenwriter: Sabu
Based on the novel by: Takiji Kobayashi
Producers: Udagawa Yasushi, Ryosuke Mameoka, Keigo Tanabe
Executive producer: Takahito Kashino
Director of photography: Takahashi Komatsu, Keiko Mitsumatsu
Production designer: Toshihiro Isomi
Music: Takashi Mori
Costume designer: Mayumi Sugiyama
Editor: Naoya Bando
No rating, 148 minutes