Fighting Elegy


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Fighting Elegy Review

A little background information (conveniently provided in the essays accompanying the new Criterion DVD release of Seijun Suzuki's 1966 Fighting Elegy) helps. Propelled by an unprecedented wage gap separating the urban rich from the rural poor, Japan in the 1930s was home to a rising movement that called for the militaristic reform of the nation's government. Central to this revolt were the writings of political extremist Ikki Kita; inspired by Kita, a small army of young military officers - many of them from peasant stock themselves - led a revolt in Tokyo in February of 1936 that left key members of Japanese government and industry dead. Martial law was instated and the rebellion quelled; the following year Kita was executed for treason, and Japan was set on the deadly course that led her into WWII.

It matters for the reason that Suzuki's muscular Fighting Elegy, which opens in 1932, follows the exploits of a middle school student named Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) as he fights his way to the top of the testosterone-fuelled machine that this rise in militarism first tooled. In this he is driven by patriotism, of course, but his primary motive in building his body and defying authority is to sublimate the intolerable lust he feels toward proper, Catholic Michiko (Junko Asano), with whose family he is lodging. In the gangs with whom Kiroku spends time, chasing after girls is for "sissies." And Kiroku, a Catholic himself, can predict all too easily how Jesus would feel about the whole thing. Masturbation helps, provided you can find a spot in the house where there are no crucifixes hanging in plain view, but Kiroku's primary mode of release remains fighting.

(The extremist Kita, it should be noted, plays a small but pivotal role in the plot himself; viewers unprepared for this may wonder what's going on in the film's concluding scenes.)

And, this being a Japanese studio film from the '60s, the fighting is the thing. Director Suzuki, whose best-known works are Story of a Prostitute and Branded to Kill, made a career of subverting genre conventions, and in Fighting Elegy he provides plenty of battles - many of them staged with a craftsman's precision - while tempering the proceedings with broad humor and his own ironic take on the stupidity of the goings-on. Young Kiroku (whose combat training is the comic highlight of the film) battles his way through the teachings of his first sensei, into one gang and then out of it, into suspension from his school and then expulsion, and finally all the way out of Tokyo. Separated from his beloved Michiko, and faced with a new, provincial ruthlessness, Kiroku grows fiercer still, until, on a snowy night in February of 1936, his story meets the trajectory of history, and he abandons his rural hamlet for the battle raging in Tokyo.

Fighting Elegy, while displaying such trademark Suzuki flourishes as insane camera angles, capricious transitions, and scenes set amid gale-force winds, is in some ways an atypical work. Though made well within Suzuki's Technicolor period, the film is in black and white (an included essay attributes this to a "punitive budget") and its period setting places it outside the guns-and-strippers milieu that Suzuki fans will expect. The film has a stripped-to-the-waist feel, and it fights its battles bare-knuckled, not with a yakuza's innovation and style. But the deeper difference goes beyond stylistic concerns: Fighting Elegy, more than any other Suzuki film in this viewer's experience, exhibits a personal investment on the part of its director that amounts to more than the cheekiness and brashness he so often conveyed. In Fighting Elegy Suzuki makes a political statement about the nature of violence about which he obviously felt deeply; it must have read as a work from the heart in 1966, and it still does today.

Despite all that, or rather because of it, Fighting Elegy is not the ideal introduction to Suzuki's works. Better, I think, for perspective, to come to it after savoring the hell-for-leather antics of a Tokyo Drifter or Youth of the Beast. If, however, you're among the director's established fans, I think that you'll find that Fighting Elegy, in many ways, towers. Don't miss this chance to learn so much more.

Aka Kenka erejii.