A new Hiroyuki Tanaka film, rejoice! He used to operate on a pretty regular schedule, sadly his last film dates almost 5 years back. By the time I'd finally caught up with his films, it seemed he quit making them. Kanikosen is a welcome come-back for Tanaka and even though it's a little different from his other output, it turned out to be a very enjoyable film indeed.
Tanaka (better known as Sabu) is without a doubt one of my favorite directors. I consider The Blessing Bell a true masterpiece, with Monday and Postman Blues only further proof of his enormous talent. His films are notoriously hard to find on DVD (English subbed that is, they seem to appreciate Tanaka in Germany a great deal more), which is quite strange considering how well-received his films are on festivals.
With Kanikosen (or The Crab Cannery Ship), Tanaka reunites his love for transportation (a boat this time around) with a fresh angle. The film is based on an old activist novel which gained renewed fame in Japan after a 100 year sleep. Tanaka's adaptation was preceded by Takiji Kobayashi who made his version a good 50 years ago, sadly I have neither read or seen any of the original works, so if you want comparisons between those and Tanaka's version I'll gladly redirect you to the Midnight Eye review. They do a much better job at those kind of things than I could ever do anyway.
It's activist background makes that Kanikosen is a film suited for big essays and deep-digging reviews. The revolution of the working class (almost slaves) against the rich exploiters is nothing new though and doesn't deserve all that much attention as the setup would make you believe. The story of slave workers rebelling against their employers is hardly new, the critique on the slavish Japanese mindset a popular theme for Japanese directors to work with.
From the first scene, it's obvious that Tanaka has made a couple of visual strides forward. Where his films used to rely on nifty editing, long shots and strong camera shots, it's the first time I see it combined with excellent use of color and setting. Almost every frame is visually impressive, which is quite a feat considering the minimal settings and tiny sets he had to work with. I think his choice to put a lot of money into a limited amount of things paid off in the end though. The film's a true bliss to behold.
The soundtrack is atmospheric but somewhat basic. Something which seems prominent in modern Japanese cinema. The music is often complementary and well-used, but hardly ever stands on its own to feet or knows to add some extra layers. It would be nice to see Japanese directors take some chances again. Acting on the other hand is universally excellent.
The whole crew does a great job, though it's Ryuhei Matsuda that deserves the most credit as head rebel of the workers. With the sudden disappearance of Tadanobu Asano and the all-over-the-place resume of Joe Odagiri, Matsuda is Japan's greatest in-house talent to roam Japanese cinema. His choice of films is almost infallible, his performances always strong and gripping.
Even though the drama in the film is pretty overpowering, Tanaka leaves enough room for comedy. From the morbid mass suicide attempt in the beginning to the silly poverty dream sequences and the crazy Russian party, there are plenty of moments to let all the seriousness slip away. Tanake does make sure though that these comedic interludes never harm the core believes of his film.
The only thing I'm missing from his latest output is his ability to let his films run its own course. Kanikosen is driven by its storyline which makes it impossible to let the film drift away on minor details and side stories. I always appreciate it when a film doesn't hold to closely to the point its trying to make, but rather takes a natural course with whatever it finds on its way. Films like Drive and Monday are perfect examples of this way of film making. On the other hand, Kanikosen really isn't suited for this style anyway and it would've felt wrong to force it into this particular frame.
Kanikosen is a solid come-back for Tanaka. Visually impressive, boasting a superb setting and a strong cast. Thematically it's a little past its expiration date maybe, but Tanaka makes sure there's plenty of bits left to enjoy next to all the moral meanderings. I can only hope he has recaptured his strength to make another couple of films as I always enjoy looking forward to his films.