Wolves, Pigs & Men (Japan, 1964)
There’s nothing quite like visiting the early work of a favorite filmmaker and tracing the path of their success through the years, from beginning to end. Throughout his 40-year career, Kinji Fukasaku pursued a diverse array of subjects (he never allowed his worked to be boiled down to one identifiable trait), but more than anything else, fans of Japanese cinema will remember him for his work in the yakuza genre. It is in that genre that the director’s signature style developed, a finely tuned, gritty aesthetic that allowed Fukasaku to tell precisely the kind of stories he wanted to tell. Stories that rejected the impossibly romantic ideals of cinema, embracing instead the ambiguous poetics of the everyday struggle, with all the ugliness, grime, and violence that it entailed.
In 1964 (a mere 3 years after his debut as a feature director) Fukasaku released Wolves, Pigs & Men, arguably the first in what was to become a long sequence of gritty, hyper-realistic yakuza films for which he would become best known.
Wolves, Pigs & Men centers on three brothers, Ichiro (Rentaro Mikuni), Jiro (Ken Takakura), and Sabu (Kin’ya Kitaoji), who were born and raised in the slums. Ichiro, the older brother, joins the local Yakuza (the Iwasaki Group), and by steadily climbing through the ladder of the organizations, he manages to craft a comfortable life for himself. Jiro, the middle brother, also pursues a life of crime, but his hotheadedness and disdain for authority drives him away from the Yakuza organization and eventually lands him in jail for 5 years. With the two older brothers gone, the obligation of taking care of their mother befalls on the youngest, Sabu, who has no choice but to remain in the slums until her eventual death
When Jiro gets out of jail, he and his partner, Mizuhara (Shinjiro Ebara) plan to steal a suitcase full of money from the Iwasaki group and split town. Realizing they need cheap muscle, Jiro hires his younger brother Sabu and his friends to help with the stick-up. Everything goes according to plan, until Sabu decides to double-cross his brother and hides the money. This puts the two brothers at odds. With Sabu not willing to reveal any information, Jiro is prepared to do absolutely everything necessary to get the money, no matter the cost. Eventually, the third brother also comes into play when the Iwasaki group learns who was involved in the robbery and wants their money back.
Wolves, Pigs & Men is without a doubt the product of a still budding filmmaker, lacking the polish of Fukasaku’s later films. The plot is unusually confined, and at times uncertain of what it is trying to say. The writers tack on a rushed ending that is accompanied by an unrealistic and unearned change of heart on behalf of the characters, a change that’s asking too much of the audience.
Nonetheless, Wolves, Pigs & Men bears traces of all the excellence that will appear in later Fukasaku films, some of which are brilliantly executed. The robbery scene, for example, is a tour-de-force in style and finesse, featuring Dutch angles, rotating pans, frantic jazz music, dynamic use of space, and Fukasaku’s signature shaky camera technique. The sense of chaos and disarray in that one scene builds up nicely from beginning to end, amounting to an immaculate display of what one may call “pure cinema.” It’s gritty. It’s daring. It’s innovative. It stands out from the rest of the film, which is relatively tame by comparison, making it all the more impactful.
The film is also a striking assurance that while Fukasaku employed violence quite frequently in his work, he never glorified or aestheticized it (a point that many modern Fukasaku imitators seem to miss). Wolves, Pigs & Men is a legitimately hard film to watch. It features several graphic torture scenes, including an implied rape, that occupy a significant portion of the runtime. The violence is ample but abhorrent. Certainly never stylish. Fukasaku does away with the chivalrous gangster, and instead replaces him with the greedy backstabbing thug for whom nothing is sacred. The only characters who display any nobility in the film are Sabu and his friends from the slums, and even then, their nobility is partially motivated by greed. In the end, nobody wins, and our characters end up either dead or with dead rats thrown in their face.
Wolves, Pigs & Men is a compelling precursor to Fukasaku’s later, better known yakuza films, yet not without some merits of its own. It’s got the energy and talent but lacks maturity in storytelling. Much like a pupa developing in its cocoon, the elements are all there, impatiently waiting to emerge in an exploding outburst.