This month, it was a challenge settling on a film to review. Initially, the article was going to explore Japanese remakes of American films, because as it turns out, Hollywood is not the only place “borrowing” ideas from overseas. Then, because I am cheap and ゴースト (which exists, seriously) is not eligible for half-price rentals yet, I decided to put that article on the backburner. The school culture festival had put me in a high school dramedy mood, however, so I happily switched gears and picked up Linda Linda Linda. I might someday return to that glorious mash up of girl talk and The Blue Hearts, but not this month. No, thanks to School Days with a Pig (ブタがいた教室) I decided, this month, I am writing about pigs.
In the West, a cute pig escaping the butcher knife is a surprisingly common trope in children’s literature. There is Wilbur, also known as “Some Pig,” from Charlotte’s Web, who proves his worth through the aid of the world’s smartest spider. Then there is Babe, who survives Christmas dinner thanks to his ability to herd sheep, and later goes on to have not-as-good-as-the-original adventures in a big city. Although western nations eat their fair share of meat, once an animal is anthropomorphized or becomes a pet, it is difficult to reestablish the connection between pig and food. After all, no one roots for the “roast pork feast” ending; the characters might as well be eating grandma at that point.
Japanese culture, on the other hand, approaches the relationship between animal and food in a much different way. I teach at a vocational school dedicated to agriculture, and have therefore seen (and smelt) my fair share of cows, pigs and chickens during the past three years. One bit of culture shock I experienced at work, that still makes me laugh to this day, is that Japanese people can look at a live animal and casually remark, “Wow, that looks delicious.” In Japan, animals being raised as food are meat, regardless of which stage of edibility they currently occupy.
School Days with a Pig tackles the same issue addressed in Babe and Charlotte’s Web but from a Japanese perspective. The film starts out like an issue of Great Teacher Onizuka, complete with a young, unconventional teacher, an overly understanding (female) principal, the somewhat villainous (and balding) vice principal, and a very angry mother rallying the PTA against the school. Basically, the teacher brings a pig to school (buy first, get permission later) and proposes that his sixth graders raise it as a class project. He suggests that once the school year is over, they should eat the pig in order to understand the relationship between life and food. Also, perhaps, between an irresponsible education system and permanent mental scarring.
Based on a true story or not, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief with this film almost immediately. The first time I saw School Days with a Pig, I only caught the second half on television, around the time when the students start debating about whether or not they will eat the pig. There, sitting on my high American horse, I thought it impossible that they would decide in favor of sending poor “P-chan” to the slaughterhouse. They voted, however, and the result was astounding yet perfect: a dead tie.
The hour that I missed turned out to be rather inconsequential. The students build a pen, name the pig against their teacher’s wishes, and protect him during bad weather. A few parents get angry because their daughters come home smelling less than ladylike, but the principal politely tells them to hit the road. The gym teacher mentions to a few kids that they are raising their pig deliciously, and is subsequently pummeled by eleven-year-old fists. It is all very charming, but these are not necessarily original or unexpected plot points.
The debates are what drew me back to School Days with a Pig even though as a viewer I think I was a pretty hard sell. Thirteen kids voted to (albeit indirectly) kill and eat a living thing they had affectionately named “P-chan” and raised for a year? Having grown up on Charlotte’s Web, this was the most unrealistic nonsense I had thought I had ever heard. Until that second viewing, that is.
School Days with a Pig makes it clear that children are a heck of a lot smarter than we give them credit for. In essence, my way of thinking was too simple; kids like cute stuff, so they would never be able to eat their pet. I was convinced School Days with a Pig was about the most irresponsible teacher of all time traumatizing twenty-six eleven-year-olds for life, but in reality, what he did over the course of a year was turn a bunch of immature kids into young adults. There are plenty of students in the class that take a stand against eating their friend, pet, or classmate (some even call him nakama), but others, and remember, these are eleven-year-olds, presented ideas that convinced me eating P-chain was the right choice. It is truly something that must be seen to be believed.
The only complaint I have about the film is that in an attempt to create a documentary atmosphere, the camerawork relies heavily on the shaky handheld technique that works well for The Office and made audiences sick during Cloverfield. Sadly, it leans a little too far in the Cloverfield direction during the debate scenes I was so taken with; at some times it was easier to only listen to the dialogue instead of watch the screen. Although I have nothing against this technique itself, there is no reason a close-up on a schoolchild needs to look like it was filmed during an earthquake in order to be realistic.
This is but a minor issue in a film that has quickly rocketed to the top of my favorite Japanese films. School Days with a Pig is a superb film and despite all my initial criticisms, it convinced me that children really are capable of amazing, unexpected things. I do not want to give away the ending (and the choice they make for P-chan) but I will say that this movie is definitely going to get remade in America. And Hollywood will change the outcome.
Thanks for watching!