Oink! – School Days With A Pig

school_days_with_a_pig_flyerOne of these days, I may well have a mind to go down the Japanese embassy and charge its filmmakers for pedophilia; following ‘Yoshino’s Barber Shop’ after watching ‘School Days with a Pig’, I am convinced that the Japanese have an innate tendency to rely on cute kids in order to make the audience go, “Aww…” That is, of course, in place of having an actual story, a compelling issue, an intelligent script, and competent editing and directing to go along with the kids so cute you wouldn’t want to stop pinching their cheeks even after they start screaming for their mothers. The Japanese have latched on to something here, and I have decided to latch on to what it is that they have latched on.

Of course, that isn’t quite the case here in ‘School Days’. The things I said earlier about the story, script, and what not? Well, they are all present here in spades of pig poo.

The pig farm they visited didn't know they're missing a little piglet...
The pig farm they visited didn't know they're missing a little piglet...

The story follows a young teacher named Mr Hoshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki). He is new and inexperienced, and deciding to make his mark in his new school, proposed a radical experiment: in order to teach his sixth-grade students about the value of life, they would raise a pig together during the school year. The idea is to explore “the real connection between life and food”. There is, however, one catch: that the pig will be eaten by the year’s end. Of course, all of the children, having already been enamoured by the little piggy, had little trouble saying yes. They’re not exactly in the mood of mind to be thinking of how sacrificing the life of an animal is required in order to keep the circle of life going; no, it’s just that little P-Chan is so damn cute!

Yes, the piggy’s name is P-Chan. I find it interesting that right from the off, some of the students have already expressed their reservations about even naming the pig. It adds a personality, they say, it makes it more human, and therefore more difficult for it to be killed at the end of the year. It is not without merit, that comment, and right from that early point of the film, I got the sense that this is a film that relies a lot on intelligence. Not only ours, but also that of the characters. I’m always up for an intelligent sort of film.

There is heaven for piggies, after all...
There is heaven for piggies, after all...

That doesn’t mean that everyone was up for the little experiment that Mr Hoshi had put in place. He faced opposition from almost everyone, including the parents of the school kids, and even some from within his own academic circles. And it is difficult to take care of a pig: P-Chan became difficult to control, he has a tendency to accidentally knock over some of the smaller kids during football, and…well, taking care of a pig is not exactly the nicest-smelling job in the world, is it? In the fact of such difficulties, Mr Hoshi does find some support from Principal Takahara (Mieko Harada), and it is this support that would prove to be crucial to the continued experiment of P-Chan. Of course, over time, past Christmas, and into the end of the school year, things grew and grew to an almost impossible climax. Impossible, because the film just about exhausted the possibilities for a clean and conclusive end.

Let me explain. Throughout the film, ours is a very objective point of view. We do not know of the changes within the characters by ourselves, but are told that it is so. When one of the students became more encouraged to come out of his shell, his father was filled with gratitude that he personally thanked Mr Hoshi. I felt that I was made to view all of this from a more objective point of view; the story wasn’t specifically told through the viewpoint of the teacher, the students or those around them (one of their parents is a pork butcher. Imagine the complications the sons faced). Rather, there is an almost documentary-like feel of omnipresence that I get, that we as the audience are supposed to be slightly detached.

The pig-wrestling competition was popular at lunch time.
The pig-wrestling competition was popular at lunch time.

We do get attached, however, to the little elements I mentioned earlier. The kids are cute, yes, but it also has something to do with their intelligence. All 28 students played their role to perfection, and it really helped to address the issue at hand: how do you reconcile with the fact that life can only go one with the death of some? We already made a pact to kill P-Chan, and we should honour that pact. But P-Chan is so cute, we have taken good care of it, why can’t we keep on doing that? If we do that, when will it stop? The animal will have to be sacrificed anyway, and what makes it more different from the other animals that are being sacrificed every single day. Eventually, as the film wears on, each character in the piece develops his or her own stand. It is a strain of individuality that made up a more convincing whole, all of which came out in an explosive classroom debate towards the end, when it is clear that the decision to keep P-Chan alive or to kill him became more difficult to make.

I find it interesting to note that the film was inspired by real-life events that happened in Osaka, Japan, and wondered whether the real life teacher faced the same dilemma the exact same way that Mr Hoshi in the film did. I’m sure he did, because I find myself thinking deeply enough afterwards for this film to remain clearly in my mind. That is the main attraction of the film, like I said: the intelligence of it.

They say you are what you eat...
They say you are what you eat...

Perhaps, however, there was too much intelligence. One wonders whether the director, Tetsu Maeda, or the scriptwriter, Hirotoshi Kobayashi, had somehow backed themselves into a corner with the ethical arguments raised both within and without the film. The children all debated extremely competently, making their stands clear on what is already a difficult case to begin with. I mean, how exactly do one reconcile with the hypocrisy of raising animals to be killed? I suspect that each of us have our own answers, and that it probably won’t definitively changed merely because of this fine film, but I do think that there will certainly be plenty of food for thought (no pun intended). As such, I can imagine even the director agonising over some of the scenes in the film, as it could very, very easily have gone either way. In the end, there is still a very objective stand, I feel, that was made throughout the film. It is by then that I realise that the objectivity that I felt was a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to make me feel and think for myself. There is a feeling, then, that the ending was the way it was because in this film, in any film, there has to be an ending. I believe that one must not confuse a film with its makers, and in this case, I feel that the ending chosen by the directors need not necessarily reflect his own stand on the issue. I believe his only aim to be to take this issue out of the sty and on the pedestal in the spotlight.

The film does not lose sight of the fact that it is a children’s film. While there is no one single actor who stood out, I felt that it was nevertheless a clever attempt by the director to take a very complicated issue and put it on the table where it belonged.

Food for thought indeed.

Fikri still does not have swine flu, thank you very much.

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