The film focuses on Kinta, a member of the Himori Yakuza, who has been put in charge of the gang's pork distribution and his girlfriend Haruko, who works at a bar. Kinta is shown working with other gangsters, beating up a local shopkeep who caters to Americans and paying the people who work on the hog farm. When Kinta goes to visit Haruko in the afternoon she leaves without speaking to him and Kinta finds out through her sister that Haruko is being paid 30000 yen to go on a date with a sailor (and that her mother has already spent the money). Haruko returns to Kinta later that night, although Kinta is unhappy because of the earlier events. Haruko reveals that she is pregnant and expresses her concerns about Kinta’s work.
Another gangster calls on Kinta early in the morning and they go out on a small boat to a larger boat where the body of a man who ran afoul of the gangsters is loaded on for them to dispose of. One of the other gangsters asks Kinta about being the fall guy, which Kinta reluctantly says he is willing to do. Haruko gets an abortion, and the doctor charges Kinta extra knowing that the Yakuza have money. A few days later, the body from the boat washes up on the wharf and is found by Kinta’s father. Kinta and his boss hide the body before Kinta’s father returns with the police, but Kinta’s father notices that Kinta’s feet are dirty and figures out that Kinta hid the body, leading to a fight. Haruko pushes Kinta to leave the gang and run away with her but Kinta refuses because he does not want to be a “wage slave”.
Meanwhile, one of the gangsters, Ohachi, is tasked with disposing of the body by burying it on the pig farm. Kinta’s boss, Tetsuji, gets mad at the other gangsters when he finds out that they set Kinta up as the fall guy without consulting him, and it is revealed that the “big boss”, Himori, has some doubts about Tetsuji. The boss calls for a celebration, where they drink, play games and cook one of the pigs. As they are eating the pig Ohachi reveals that he was too lazy to bury the body so he simply boiled it and put it into the pig feed, disgusting the other gangsters. Tetsuji, who is ill, becomes so sick that he has to go to the hospital. Kinta finds out that his boss only has 3 days to live, information that Tetsuji forces out of him. Tetsuji is distraught and pays a gangster named Wang to kill him at some point in the future.
Haruko, becoming increasingly frustrated with Kinta, goes to a party with sailors to get drunk. Haruko is shown at a hotel with three Americans, all of whom are loud and drunk. In a moment of clarity she tries to leave but is stopped and raped by the sailors. Afterwards, Haruko attempts to escape with the American’s money but gets caught and goes to jail. The next day, her family retrieves her and she agrees to marry an American according to her mother’s wishes. Meanwhile, the Himori gang is crumbling for financial reasons. Kinta and a few other gangsters agree to load the pigs on trucks that night and take the money for themselves. Kinta goes to wait at the pig farm and finds Haruko, and the two agree to runaway together after Kinta sells the pigs. At night, Himori arrives before Kinta’s friends and loads up the pigs on trucks of his own, also beating up Kinta and loading him onto a truck. Kinta’s friends arrive in time to see Himori leaving and follow them into the downtown. Himori and Kinta's friends reach an agreement and decide once again to make Kinta the fall guy. However, Kinta says no this time and uses a rifle he discovered earlier on the truck to ward off the other gangsters. Tetsuji shows up, having discovered earlier that there was a medical mix-up and that he only has a mild ulcer, and Wang arrives, causing the Tetsuji to run away, although he is in no danger because Wang discovered that he was paid in counterfeit money and would therefore not kill the boss. Kinta orders the truck drivers to release all of the pigs. Kinta is shot by one of the gangsters, and after Kinta returns fire, the terrified pigs stampede ultimately resulting in the deaths of many towns people. Haruko, who had agreed to meet Kinta at the train station, overhears that there is Yakuza infighting downtown. She goes there only to find Kinta’s body, having died from his gunshot wound. Days later, Haruko’s family prepares for her to marry the American man but Haruko runs away.Hiroyuki Nagato - Kinta
Jitsuko Yoshimura - Haruko
Masao Mishima - Himori
Tetsurō Tamba - Slasher Tetsuji
Shirō Ōsaka - Hoshino
Takeshi Katō - Ohachi
Shôichi Ozawa - Gunji, Gangster in check shirt
Yōko Minamida - Katsuyo
Hideo Sato - Kikuo
Eijirō Tōno - Kan'ichi
Akira Yamauchi - Sakiyama
Sanae Nakahara - Hiromi
Kin Sugai - Haruko's mother
Bumon Kahara - Harukoma
World War II dealt a significant blow to Japanese society. Japan had prospered in the 1920s, but the Great Depression caused many countries to take protectionist measures, which hurt a Japan that had become dependent on exports. Japan sought to expand its influence through military expansion in the late 1930s. Japan allied with Nazi Germany, but the war proved costly. Nearly 3 million Japanese died during the war, and the country was left with limited production, significant inflation and widespread starvation. American forces occupied the country, with General Douglas MacArthur in charge, and they drafted a new constitution as well as demilitarizing the country, leaving it to only a small self-defense force. The occupation officially ended in 1952, but American military bases remained and became an object of protest. The 1957 Girard Incident, in which a Japanese woman was shot on an American military base, spurred further protest. In 1960, one year prior to the making of the film, Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke pushed through a renewed US-Japan Security Treaty, effectively ending the protests.
The American occupation lead to a resurgence of the Yakuza in Japan. US Military Intelligence aided the Yakuza as they were seen to be in opposition to communism. The policy of food rationing also strengthened the Black Market, bringing money to gangsters. Disarmament also allowed for the Yakuza to operate with little concern for law enforcement. A new type of Yakuza called the Gurentai emerged, who were known for their brutality and willingness to use violence against civilians. US Military intelligence also secured the release of prominent crime figure Yoshio Kodama in exchange for a promise that he would oppose communism. Kodama became one of the most powerful figures in post-war Japan and acted as a link between top level government officials and the Yakuza.
During the immediate postwar years, Imamura was a black market hustler. After graduating from Waseda University in 1951, Imamura worked as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu. Imamura was not inclined to Ozu’s methods, particularly Ozu's very explicit direction of actors, and transferred to a program at Nikkatsu studios in 1954. Imamura conducted extensive research for the film, spending time with gangsters who he found to have a unique kind of pride and freedom. The gangsters teased Imamura for working hard but not having much money. Imamura wanted 1500 pigs for the climax of the film, but had to make do with 400 due to financial constraints. Pigs and Battleships proved to be controversial on its initial release that studio Nikkatsu banned Imamura for two years, during which time he developed screenplays.
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times described the plot as complex but with a simple message, a warning about cultural imperialism, and describes the climax as hilarious and unique. Vincent Canby of the New York Times also praised the climax and described the movie overall as “refreshingly impolite”. John Berra, writing for Electric Sheep Magazine, described the film as a "biting social satire" and "cruelly entertaining". Pigs and Battleships won the 1961 Blue Ribbon Award for Best Film.