Sabu’s “Kanikosen” – New York Film Festival 2009 Review

“Kanikosen,” or “The Crab Factory Ship,” is a famous work of proletarian literature by Takiji Kobayashi, first published in 1929. It tells the story of a group of men on a crab fishing and canning operation on the sea brutally treated by their greedy, tyrannical boss, and who eventually rise up against their oppressors. The original novel, as well as a manga adaptation, experienced a resurgence in popularity in Japan last year, especially among young readers, who identified with the novel’s oppressed workers, as they saw opportunities in their own lives increasingly hard to come by.

Such a work, then, would seem to be an unlikely source for a film by comic auteur Sabu (“Non-Stop,” “Monday,” “Unlucky Monkey,” “Drive”), whose work up to now has consisted mostly of fast-paced, anarchic comedies. “Kanikosen,” the second film adaptation of Kobayashi’s novel (the first film version was made in 1953), finds Sabu in a much more serious, earnest mode – while still retaining his unique brand of humor, however. The film’s opening, in which a worker attempting to escape the ship is rained upon by a torrential shower of crab shells, would not be out of place in any of his other films. There is also a very funny sequence, illustrated with flashback inserts, in which the workers one-up each other in describing how desperately poor their families are. Later, a mass attempted suicide becomes unexpectedly hilarious.

The gear wheels and the endless assembly-line canning work on the ship are an unending source of misery for the men, a sort of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” without the humor. The men grieve for their families and curse their rotten fate. Brief flashbacks show us their lives before coming to this ship, where they were lured with the promise of great riches to bring back for their families, but instead find themselves trapped in a hellish existence. Sabu departs somewhat from the original novel, which being true to its exaltation of the proletariat class, did not give any of the characters names, making the working class itself the protagonist. In Sabu’s version, one clear leader emerges – Shinjo (Ryuhei Matsuda), who leads the workers in revolt against their despotic boss, Arakawa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who drives the men literally to death to increase their yield and amass glory for himself and his superiors. Shinjo and another worker attempt to escape the ship and find themselves on a Russian ship, which is revealed to be a worker’s paradise in stark opposition to the fascistic atmosphere of their own ship. Inspired by the Russians, Shinjo returns to lead his co-workers in revolt against Arakawa and the rotten system he represents.

Sabu makes brilliant use of his source material, retaining the agitprop elements of the novel to deliver a truly exhilarating and rousing film. “Kanikosen” is much more structurally sound than most of his other films; as inventive as many of his original scenarios are, they have a tendency to run out of steam at a certain point and become repetitious. The fact that Sabu this time is adapting another author’s material seems to have forced some discipline on his writing, making “Kanikosen” a fully realized and consistent work. Sabu is greatly aided by an impressive cast; Matsuda (“Gohatto,” “Blue Spring,” “Nightmare Detective”) and Nishijima (“License to Live,” “Dolls,” “Vacation”) make for very compelling antagonists.

“Kanikosen” screens at the New York Film Festival on September 27 and 28. To purchase tickets, visit the NYFF Web site.