Kanikosen, Japanese novel and films

This video from Japan is the trailer of the recent film Kanikosen (The Crab Cannery Ship).

By Stefan Steinberg in Germany:

Kanikosen: a Japanese “proletarian novel,” updated

3 March 2010

This is the third in a series of articles on the recent Berlin International Film Festival, February 11-21. …

One film that stood out at the film festival was the recent adaptation of the novel Kanikosen (The Crab Factory Ship) by the Japanese director Sabu (born Hiroyuki Tanaka in 1964).

The novel was published in 1929 and relates the story of a group of men on a crab fishing and canning ship who are brutally exploited by the company foreman who exhorts them to work harder in the interests of the nation. When the factory ship’s radio receives a S.O.S. from another vessel, the foreman refuses to suspend production for a rescue operation.

The turning point in the story comes when some crew members are lost at sea and rescued by a Soviet vessel. On board they meet a Chinese communist who teaches them to stand up for their fellow workers. Initially suspicious of “communism,” the workers return to their ship, form a union and revolt against their bosses.

The novel highlighted the class tensions in Imperial Japan, when the militarist regime stamped out any industrial action or protests. In the story, the strike on board the ship is brutally repressed. The novel quickly won an audience following its publication and was adapted for theatre in the same year. Its author, Takiji Kobayashi, joined the Japanese Communist Party in 1931, and was arrested and tortured to death by Japanese police two years later at the age of just 29. The novel Kanikosen was banned in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s as part of the regime’s ruthless suppression of the socialist movement.

A film by director So Yamamura based on the novel appeared in 1953, but in postwar Japan annual sales of the book never exceeded 5,000.

More recently, however, the situation has changed: in 2008 more than half a million copies of the book were sold. In addition, no fewer than four different manga comic versions have been produced. The book has found an explosive resonance, particularly among young people in Japan, who, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, are able to identify with the oppressive social conditions that prevailed in Imperial Japan 80 years earlier.

In his remake of Kanikosen, director Sabu has made significant changes. He injects surreal and absurdist elements not to be found in the realist approach adopted by the original novel and the 1953 film version. At the start of Sabu’s film, we witness the workers employed in the dark, wet depths of the ship manipulating the levers of the oversized cogs and wheels of the crab-canning machinery. Recalling Chaplin’s Modern Times, the workers are literally one small cog in the entire production process.

A subsequent scene depicts the workers seeking to end their miserable existence by (unsuccessfully) attempting mass suicide. The black humour on display is obviously drawn from Sabu’s past experience as a director of anarchic-type comedies.

Another change from the original novel and the 1953 film is Sabu’s decision to give his characters names and develop the personalities of some of the leading ones—exemplified in an early scene, for example, where a number of the workers reminisce about their past.

I was able to take up a few of these issues in an interview with the director. As Sabu makes clear, he made a number of changes to his film in order to attract a larger audience. His background as a director of comedies with mass appeal to young people was evidently a factor in his choice to make Kanikosen.

The changes introduced by Sabu to win a new audience for the filmed version of the novel are warranted, in my opinion, and appropriate to the novel’s principal motives. What stands out in the interview with Sabu, however, is the extent to which he seeks to play down the political issues involved and distance himself from the objective social content of his film. This speaks to various ideological and historical problems.

The director stresses that his attempt to inject the main characters with more personality was aimed exclusively at encouraging individualism in Japan’s conformist society. There might be some legitimacy to this, but, as has been noted more than once, there are different kinds of individualism. What does the filmmaker have in mind? This was our conversation.…

Kimono exhibition: here.

4 thoughts on “Kanikosen, Japanese novel and films

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