Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mission accomplished: The Crab-Canning Ship

Recently, after much fluttery anticipation, I read the 1929 novella The Crab Canning Ship by the Japanese novelist and communist activist Takiji Kobayashi. Publication of this book led directly to Kobayashi's 1933 assassination by the imperial secret police. Currently, there's a resurgence of interest in and reading of this novel in Japan, spurred by increasingly difficult conditions for workers.

Let me not be coy: I loved it. It's short, almost brutally so in the way it leaves the reader yearning for more, but it tells a powerful story. Some of the passages are so alive with the smells, tastes, sounds on board the hellish factory ship from which workers net crabs, and on which they process and can the shellfish, that they made me feel physically sick. Also the portrayal of the workers' suffering, their physical ills, their filth, hunger, thirst, exhaustion--it's visceral, it has a stark, intense immediacy. And then when they start to organize, when they rebel against the officers and the crab-canning company's supervisors, well, it's quite thrilling.

Kobayashi's book reminded me very much of the great 1925 movie "Battleship Potemkin" by Sergei Eisenstein, especially the shipboard scenes of horror and then worker unity and revolt.