Reviews

Sabu

Japan, 2009

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 30 September 2009

Source Finecut 35mm Print

Categories The 47th New York Film Festival

One of the more peculiar selections for this year’s New York Film Festival, Kanikosen has the distinction of being probably the only film the festival has ever featured that takes place more or less entirely on a crab cannery boat. Crisscrossing the Sea of Okhotsk in search of greater and greater quantities of shellfish, the vessel in question becomes the site of a battle of worker against oppressor, a labor struggle drawn from a classic work of Japanese proletarian literature written in 1929 by left-wing writer Takiji Kobayashi. For better or worse, however, this film adaptation by Sabu (no known relation to the actor from The Jungle Book) is no canned and crusty period piece. Indeed, the Film Society’s blurb for Kanikosen boldly plays up the film’s purported roots in manga (and J. Hoberman’s recent festival overview in the Village Voice called the film “manga-flavored”).

But if this is manga, then I’m Astro Boy—Sabu’s film is many things, but it doesn’t resemble a Japanese comic book, at least not in the way the Film Society means it. More accurately, the original novel of Kanikosen was the subject of a bestselling manga last year (which you can download for free here). The success of that work – due in no small part to a very naturalistic and ingenuous stylistic approach – no doubt inspired the making of this film, which seems at first to take a slightly jazzier angle. But sadly, that’s where the manga connection begins and ends.

Apparently, the story’s message of rising up against tyranny – in Kobayashi’s day, a direct reaction to the highly militarized Japanese government of the 1920s – has proven inspirational to modern Japanese youth, thus inspiring a film to capitalize on said inspiration. Whether these youths see themselves as analogous to the labor movements and socialist activists of the late 1920s is unclear, but the simplistic and repetitive way in which Sabu makes his political points in his film version makes any richer connection seem unlikely. With a wobbly tone that alternates between mocking and mawkish, Sabu’s film contrasts dreams of bourgeois wealth portrayed as a giggly, neverending volleyball game with fleeting moments of outsized sadism perpetrated by the boat’s cruel, oppressive, pretty-boy foreman.

But amid the drudgery of assembly-line crab-canning, and even with occasional outbursts of paper-thin proletarian solidarity, none of these bizarre tonal shifts manages to liven the film up much. For one thing, despite occasional touches of digital panache, expressive lighting, and odd camera angles, the film is rather lacking in visual inventiveness. This is unsurprising, perhaps, for a film that takes place largely on a crab cannery ship, but it’s no less disappointing. Sabu demonstrates temerity elsewhere – giving his villain an anachronistically cool haircut and trenchcoat; interjecting the odd flashback or fantasy sequence; sending two main characters on a lengthy but rather half-baked detour to a rival Russian crab boat complete with jolly, dancing Cossacks with big fur hats – but ultimately he doesn’t take his film nearly far enough into stylization, comedy, tragedy, politics—or anything else. By a certain point in the film, once the beleaguered protagonists have had the same epiphanies – about individual rights and happiness, seizing the day, and the cruel injustice perpetrated upon them by greedy industrialists – many times over, the film becomes a merely wearying and excessive two hours. The crab canners manage to fashion a nicely designed logo for their ad hoc union, but otherwise there’s precious little visual or political wit for the viewer to rally behind.

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