As I mentioned, music seems to be playing a big part in the festival films thus far, and A Flame at the Pier by Masahiro Shinoda is also filled with varied music, from a guitar ballad about seagulls which Sabu (Takashi Fujiki) uses to serenade ladies, to like an Elvis Presley movie with him rocking and rolling off the cuff to masses at a party. But this is unlike a Presley film which is almost always so uplifting and sunny. If anything, this story is about the tragic life of Sabu the young adult, a henchman beholden and indebted to his boss, the limping Kitani (Koji Nanbara), whom he believed had saved him from an air raid when he was young which resulted in his disability.
A Flame at the Pier opens with a sit down strike amongst the dock workers, who are protesting about their poor work conditions, long work hours, ill treatment and paltry pay. What more they still have to provide a kickback percentage of to Kitani and his thugs and muscles to well, keep them out of trouble. Decisions to unionize themselves to bring in better bargaining power has always led to the ringleader meeting with tragedy, and it's no prizes guessing the involvement of you know who in order to maintain and satisfy the greed of managers and the company. Clearly you can see the rich-poor divide that is very prominent amongst the haves, throwing opulent parties attended by who's who of society, and the have nots who are obviously struggling.
At some points I thought the film was a romantic one even, with two separate threads running, one that dwelled on the budding romance between Sabu and Yuki, a waitress he saves from a barking dog by flinging it against a fence (yes, you gotta see it to believe!) to contrast the forbidden yet open affair between Kitani and Reiko (Kyoko Kishida), the wife of the impotent dock company's president (So Yamamura) who needs an escape from her loveless and dead marriage, since she's in it for the money. And similarly to Yoshishige Yoshida's Good for Nothing, Yuki holds onto the hope that her love, or a demonstration of it, can change Sabu for the better, since she's just about the only person in his life that sees the better side of him for the time being, the rest of the workers warning her that he's nothing good but a company dog made to obey orders by Kitani.
This is quite the tragedy in having a protagonist being someone who's being manipulated on all fronts, and not being able to live his dreams of making it big through his great singing voice. Instead what we see is a caged bird puppet who operates as told by his master in a show of blind faith and loyalty, being dangled with a carrot of a promise that his hard work will be rewarded sometime in future. But in the meantime, the exploitation continues, and he's subjected to a life filled with lies, betrayal and of being used by others in positions of power, making him no better off than those he's supposed to monitor, and experiencing the double whammy of watching his romantic happiness slip away, and his commitment of a grave sin.
Goes to show that unless bold steps are taken to walk away with courage from what we know is wrong, we're going to be forever stuck in a vicious circle that becomes too late to walk away from one day. There's no riding into the sunset with his lady love in this film, although a sunset does feature in casting its rays onto a figure in solitude.