Judge Adam Arseneau had no rage when he was young, although he did experience one or more of the following: acerbity, acrimony, apoplexy, fury, indignation, ire, paroxysms, umbrage, vehemence, and wrath.
Independence No. 1!
If You Were Young: Rage is something of a mysterious film, if for no other reason than being the one Kinji Fukasaku film that even die-hard Japanese fans never got to see. Created during the independent streak of Fukasaku's career in the early 1970s, it was financed outside of the studio system with a small budget, and after its initial debut was universally forgotten save for references in dusty history books (and the Internet Movie Database, of course). No existing print of the movie was thought to exist, and it had been written off as lost for years—until it was rediscovered in a dusty Shochiku studio vault in the late 1990s. The film was re-released shortly thereafter in Japan, and when it hit the film festival circuit, it drew out some of the biggest young Japanese directors eager to pay their respects—not only to the director's prolific career, but to the Fukasaku film that nobody in the new generation of Japanese filmmakers had ever seen. As celebrated Japanese film author Tom Mes points out in the liner notes of If You Were Young: Rage, the fact that this movie is now available in North America on DVD is something of a minor miracle, considering the idiosyncratic journey this film took from its conception to creation to abandonment to rediscovery.
And now I get to review it. Cool.
Facts of the Case
After the Second World War and the absolute pantsing that Japan took at the hands of the Allies, a massive reconstruction effort was undertaken to rebuild the country. Many young Japanese were recruited straight out of high school and diverted toward the cause. These were the "golden eggs," the young saviors of Japanese society charged with recreating the infrastructure of the country, and upon their sturdy backs would be built a modern, prosperous, and technologically advanced society. But after the country had been put back together, these "golden eggs" were unceremoniously cast back into society, their usefulness fulfilled. With no education and little prospects for employment, they ended up turning to menial jobs to support themselves.
Five such friends find themselves at such a crossroads. After being abandoned into the workforce, a few of the friends work construction, one waits tables, one even tries a career as a boxer, but none of these careers really pan out. Together, they start formulating a plan to get their lives back on track. Tired of their crummy blue-collar jobs, tired of the terrible manual labor, the waiting tables and the disrespect, they decide to buy a truck and rake in the money working construction jobs. A truck would take at least five years of hard saving…but five of them working hard could buy the truck in a year!
So they go to work saving their money, each slaving away at his job. Unfortunately, life rears its ugly head and sabotages the plans for the young entrepreneurs. One of the friends gets a girl pregnant, and withdraws from the deal in order to support his family. Another takes a job as a strikebreaker and ends up being beaten to death by overzealous police officers. A third ends up in a life of crime in order to finance the truck and ends up being arrested. So when the glorious day finally arrives, and the truck is in their possession, only two are left to enjoy it. As planned, they name the truck "Independence No. 1" and celebrate the financial freedom it represents.
Sadly, their joy is short-lived, as the construction site they work at goes on strike. As independent truck owners, they are not obligated to participate in the strike, but crossing the picket line could be dangerous. To make matters worse, their criminal friend takes it upon himself to break himself out of jail, and ends up hiding out with the two friends. Things begin to go downhill for the two friends, who struggle to keep their senses, their sanity, and their sense of prosperity as reality comes crashing down…
Truly groundbreaking and classic films rarely vanish; they have a way of sticking around in one form or another, because they are simply too good to be forgotten. So if this film was all it was cracked up to be, it should never have vanished into obscurity, right? I mean, most films that actually do fall off the face of the world are (more often than not) of the unremarkable sort, quickly forgotten by all…and nobody loses much sleep over it, if you know what I mean.
But in all fairness, If You Were Young: Rage is neither groundbreaking nor unremarkable. It is hardly the jewel in the crown of Fukasaku's exhaustive and prolific film career, but neither is it a film worth abandoning to the depths of a vault, unappreciated and unwatched by the masses. It is a deeply personal film, expressing the rage and frustration and the peculiar pendulum swing between melancholic nihilism and unbridled optimism of Japanese youth in the 1960s, and certainly represents both the social and economic discontents of a post-war generation, not to mention the personal frustrations of a director growing more irritated by the confinements of the Japanese studio system. The tragedy of the film is its potential—not a jab at the quality of the film itself, but rather, the potential of an entire generation of Japanese, thrust into mediocrity based on political and social events outside their control. It is hardly surprising that Fukasaku would be interested in such a cast-off group of people; anyone familiar with his work as a whole no doubt has picked up on the long-running themes of sympathy toward disaffected youth in constant conflict with a cold and uncaring adult world (most recently personified in his final films before his death—the ultra-violent, allegorical and hyperbolic Battle Royale and Battle Royale II).
In a sense, we are talking a Japanese version of Rebel Without A Cause here. We have characters trapped on the precipice between the emotional immaturity of childhood and the terrible burden of responsibility that comes with adulthood. These characters do not handle the pressure very well—they drink a lot, they fight, and they steal. When they decide to have an honest go at life, they find the world cold and unaccommodating to their unbridled enthusiasm. This precipitates spirals of misery, anger, and misplaced rage, as they blame society as a whole for their shortcomings. Many Fukasaku films break down along the lines of the rage-filled, angst-ridden youth lashing out against the oppressive system dominated by emotionally bankrupt, callous, and aggressive adults, and this black-and-white dichotomy probably stems from his early work making cookie-cutter Yakuza films. Morality was a rather simple matter of good guys and bad guys, with very little middle ground.
The characters are complex to the extent that emotionally stunted little spazzes can be. Kikuo and Asao flail arms and yell a lot, and react unpredictably to even the smallest offenses. We gather from flashback sequences that both Kikuo and Asao had hard childhoods, both growing up in a coal mining community, both losing their fathers to the mine. Asao's mother had resorted to prostitution in order to support her son, but this is not made clear; these jumbled flashes fuel the fires of his more violent and terrible outbursts of aggression (and also send him straight into the dysfunctional arms of his dead friend's sister, probably the one woman from whom he should stay far away).
The story is well crafted, compelling, and kind of tragic, despite the upbeat ending that Fukasaku was pressured to include (he had wanted to end it on a note of total despair). You do feel bad for these characters, despite the hissy fits, since they made a genuine attempt to stay on the straight and narrow and make something of themselves. The sheer exuberance of Kikuo and Asao taking their newly purchased truck out for a spin through the streets slaps a grin on your face a mile wide. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and it is a bitter pill indeed when misfortune strikes them down, especially since it seems to be absolutely no fault of their own. There is no divine retribution, no karmic justice—this is just life giving the ol' screw job for no discernable reason. You can certainly empathize with their rage.
Thanks to some half-decent emotional weight, the story has stayed remarkably timeless, considering the retro look of the film itself. Raging against the world never really goes out of style, I suppose. If You Were Young: Rage goes out to hit certain emotional buttons, and manages to hit them with decent precision. Not a bad little film, really.
Fukasaku directs the film with noticeable flair and aggression, lighting scenes with harsh primary colors, pulling off some surprisingly slick and progressive editing tricks, utilizing shaky hand-held camera shots, harsh quick zooms, and camera transitions far beyond conventional Japanese cinema of its time. He channels the same rage and frustration personified in the film's subject matter straight into the director's chair, giving the film a noticeable energy and vibrancy reminiscent of a French new wave film. Much of the film takes place in syncopated monochromatic flashback sequences, and Fukasaku makes extensive use of freeze-frame shots in the film, with numerous scenes drifting past like Polaroid snapshots of faded memories one after the next. We only get brief pulses of memories, like a flash bulb going off in your face, leaving the after-image lingering onscreen for a few seconds. A very cool, if incredibly overused, technique.
The transfer is quite impressive, especially considering the film had been languishing unattended in a vault somewhere for the last thirty years. Colors are vibrant and bold with reds, yellows, blues, and greens so exaggerated that they look as if they popped straight out of a crayon box. Black levels and graininess are on par with a Japanese low-budget film from 1970; that is to say, not the greatest, but still well within reasonable tolerances. The film exhibits some softness from time to time, but overall the presentation of this film is extremely pleasing.
The Dolby 2.0 audio track is clear and defined, but has an unnatural harshness and rasp to it; again, not uncommon in mono track films of that time period. When the characters go from quiet speech to screaming—which they seem to do an awful lot in this film—the audio clips and distorts slightly, as if the outbreak catches the sound technician by surprise every time (it probably did). Bass response is minimal and most of the film languishes in the midrange and treble, but overall, it is not an unpleasant presentation. The rear channels take some of the environmental and music, but you wouldn't know it unless you actually picked up your rear channel speaker and stuck it directly up to your ear like a seashell…err, like I did. This is not the most memorable Dolby 2.0 track you will ever hear, to say the least, but it manages to eke out enough character to save it from disaster. What it lacks in substance and presence it makes up for in clarity of dialogue and music, a lilting jaunt that repeats itself in various incantations throughout the film, like a demented accordion player on the streets of Paris. The same basic progression is repeated over and over with different arrangement each time, but the score never sounds repetitive or dull.
HVE throws in a few bones in terms of supplementary content, which is always appreciated, though the offering is hardly a smorgasbord. We get some nice liner notes by acclaimed Japanese cinema scribe Tom Mes, which are nifty, but also, just liner notes. The main course is an eight-minute interview with director Kinji Fukasaku, recorded shortly before his death, in which the director recollects about his film and its understandable comparisons to his current project, Battle Royale. It is short but sweet. Finally, a director's filmography is included. This is on par with previous HVE releases—enough to wet the appetite, but not nearly enough to fill the belly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No other way to say it: The acting is terrible. The characters, for no apparent reason, break out into manic hissy fits, kicking and screaming at absolutely nothing—where the "rage" comes from in the title of the film, I guess. I had a hard time determining whether this was bad acting or bad writing, but my guess is acting. Some of the freak-outs are so far over the top as to be completely ludicrous. One memorable scene involves a character running into the ocean and, I swear, lying on his back and kicking his hands in feet in the air—a full-fledged temper tantrum. Who actually does that?
If You Were Young: Rage might be a throwaway film for Fukasaku, but it speaks volumes that even his forgotten movies are better than most other films of its day. HVE has had a great track record at bringing esoteric titles to DVD in North America, and this DVD is no exception. Fans of Fukasaku's work would be well advised to check this film out, but the film's relative tameness and age probably robs it of any meaningful drawing power for the general masses.
Still, if you find yourself into some retro teenage angst one night at the video store? Independence No. 1 is your number.
Not guilty. But I liked Battle Royale better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Interview with Director Kinji Fukasaku
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