Judge Dan Mancini marvels at Seijun Suzuki's look at the life of a pre-WWII Japanese youth.
They say that heroes always fall in love.
On February 26, 1936 1,400 soldiers stormed government buildings in Tokyo and murdered the Finance Minister and the Inspector General of Military Education. They were inspired in part by the manifesto of political revolutionary Ikki Kita, An Outline of a Plan for the Reconstruction of Japan. Kita dreamed of sweeping away the parliamentary democracy that had arisen during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), placing the Emperor back in direct control of the country, and pushing out the Western influences that had slowly crept into the culture over the past century. The coup failed because the Emperor didn't rise to the support of the revolutionaries, but Kita's essentially fascist political philosophy found affirmation in the declaration of martial law intended to restore order to the government. The military's increased power and influence led to an arms build-up, a more aggressive stance toward Japan's neighbors over the next decade, and, ultimately, a crushing war with the West after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
For Seijun Suzuki and many Japanese his age (he joined the army in 1943 at the age of 20), February 26, 1936 was a fateful day indeed. The militarization of the culture shaped his generation and led them unwittingly into a world conflict that ended in nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the occupation of Japan by the American military. That day proved a turning point, the beginning of the end of life as they'd known it.
Facts of the Case
After a martial opening theme, Fighting Elegy (Kenka Erejii) begins in Bizen, Okayama in 1935. The story traces the coming of age of Kiroku Nanbu (Hideki Takahashi, Tattooed Life), a high schooler who boards with a local Catholic family. His fumbling, hormone-driven personal discovery unfolds through his practice of self-abuse and the abuse of others—his lust for the family's devout daughter, Michiko, sublimated in masturbation and fisticuffs with other youths. He learns fighting first under the tutelage of a local garage mechanic named Turtle (Yusuke Kawazu, Black Lizard), then under a rough classmate named Takuan. Michiko's fascination with haiku introduces Kiroku to a third mentor of sorts when he has a brief encounter with an enigmatic writer at a local tea house.
Kiroku is caught in the middle when a skirmish erupts between Turtle and Takuan. The mini-war results in his expulsion from school. He's sent by his father (Seijiro Onda, Throne of Blood) to rural Aizu Wakamatsu in the hopes that separating him from the negative influence of his delinquent friends will quell his violent tendencies. But the boy's isolation from Michiko only fuels his adolescent rage, drawing him into conflict with the yokels at his new school. The film ends on the beautiful snowy day of February 26, 1936. As news of the attempted coup spreads, Kiroku realizes the mysterious writer he met in Okayama was none other than Ikki Kita. The permanent dissolution of his relationship with Michiko cements his rage and feelings of isolation. As the closing credits roll, we know he—like so many young men in Japan—will seek and find temporary solace from his ennui in his country's rising militarism.
Seijun Suzuki is known as a master of style. His most famous films (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill) are yakuza programmers with inane plots, elevated to art film status by the elegant compositions, aggressive editing, and emotionally detached sense of cool he brings to the table. But Fighting Elegy is a different film for the director, one that holds a special place in his heart even to this day. It is the sort of film Suzuki might have made throughout his career if Nikkatsu (the studio to which he was under contract until the gorgeous incoherencies of Branded to Kill moved the suits to can him) hadn't been strapped for cash and, therefore, so insistent their directors play it safe and deliver reliable, formulaic pictures, cheap and guaranteed to turn at least a modest profit. Fighting Elegy is smart, funny, beautifully constructed, and deeply personal for Suzuki.
In some ways, it is like a Japanese version of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove—an incisive satire unflinching in its willingness to examine the cultural impulses that lead to war's absurd violence and self-destruction. Kiroku and his pals take their combat quite seriously; they're all tight-lipped, furrow-browed bluster and bravado. But the viewer sees the truth the young men can't: they're only boys fumbling at a false ideal of manhood. When they war against each other, they're driven by a sense of honor and duty that is real to them, though we recognize it as a fraud, a hollow romanticism they've picked up from movies and literature. The skirmish between Turtle's and Takuan's gangs plays like a parody of chambara (swashbuckling movies), the combatants scurrying about, wearing warriors' faces, wielding sticks like samurai swords. But they're not samurai or soldiers; they're kids. Suzuki emphasizes the artifice by having the fight broken up by Kiroku's father disguised as a cop—no real cops are needed to quell the rebellion of these fake fighters. As soon as they see the lone uniformed figure standing in the distance, they dissolve into sheepish children and scramble for safety. It would be purely comic if Suzuki didn't, at key turns in the film, cleverly remind us of the national devastation to which the boys' bogus machismo would lead. The director's use of tone is masterful. He delivers what is essentially an innocent, exuberant, and funny coming-of-age tale, but uses the shadow of the 1936 coup attempt to infuse it with a seriousness and poignancy.
The complexity and subtlety of Fighting Elegy's content (at least when compared to other Suzuki films) is due in part to writer/director Kaneto Shindo's (Onibaba) involvement in the script. The left wing, anti-war Shindo was already known and respected for serious, thoughtful fare like 1952's Children of Hiroshima and 1960's The Island by the time he accepted the writer-for-hire gig to pen Elegy (to give you an idea of Shindo's power as a filmmaker, shots from Children of Hiroshima were incorporated into Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour and are virtually indistinguishable from the documentary footage, shot days after the nuclear attack, also used in the film). Though it was a knock-off project for him, the script contains a depth absent from the dreck typically assigned to Suzuki by Nikkatsu. And the director made the most of the quality material that had finally landed in his lap. Not only is there the wonderful dichotomy of tone, wholly appropriate to the film's incongruous title, but Suzuki adds to the density of his satire by setting his sights on as many targets as he can in the movie's 86-minute running time. Most notably, the juvenile war that breaks out between Kiroku's two masters is a frontal assault on the yakuza film formulas the director had been forced to explore again and again in his career up to that point. The lone gangster seeking the true path of honor in a turf war between factions to whom his loyalties are divided is the most well-worn trope of yakuza movies, and Suzuki seems to relish revealing its shallowness and empty romanticism by placing it in the context of teenagers' play-acting. It's Shindo's political acumen, however, that makes the explicit connection between the adolescents' self-delusion and that of the larger Japanese culture. Attempts to translate the romantic ideals of epic literature and cinema to the real world can have dire consequences indeed.
It's no wonder Suzuki's next film, Branded to Kill, so deconstructed the yakuza form—its rote plot made almost unintelligible by the director's stylistic abstractions—that the livid and exasperated Nikkatsu executives fired him on the spot. How could he go back to business as usual after the expressive freedom he felt in making Fighting Elegy? How could he make more of the sorts of films he'd so explicitly maligned?
Criterion's DVD release delivers Fighting Elegy in a beautiful transfer. Sourced from the original camera negative, the black-and-white image—presented at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen displays—has solid blacks, vivid whites, and an impressive scale of grays. There are few signs of damage, though the film shows its age in some isolated instances of gentle flickering. The single-channel mono audio track (in Japanese, with optional English subtitles) has been fully restored and is of a similarly high quality.
Like the other Suzuki titles released by Criterion thus far (Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter, and Branded to Kill), the disc is extremely light on supplements. The only extra on the DVD itself is a theatrical trailer. A fold-out insert contains a brief essay by filmmaker and critic Tony Rayns (The Jang Sun-Woo Variations) that provides solid context for the film both historically and within Suzuki's oeuvre. There's also a brief, unattributed overview of Ikki Kita.
Fighting Elegy isn't as visually exuberant as Suzuki's most famous films, but it doesn't need to be. Its political and cultural substance, as well as its deeply personal resonance with Suzuki, make it one of the director's most interesting and beautiful pictures.
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