Seijunuary: Fighting Elegy

Nothing gives you a more bracing sensation of how crazily prolific Seijun Suzuki was during his most fertile period at Nikkatsu than the fact that Tokyo Drifter and Fighting Elegy — two movies that are light-years apart in terms of tone, subject matter, and setting — were both made in the same year.  The Siskel Center screened them in the order in which they were completed, though the making of one spilled over into the other; how he was able to keep them so entirely distinct is beyond me, and if that’s not a testament to his crazy brand of genius, I don’t know what is.

Fighting Elegy (or, as it was shown here from a somewhat iffy print, The Born Fighter) is one of the most curious entries in Suzuki’s portfolio.  It’s a period piece set during the mid-1930s, when Japan was facing a huge amount of social upheaval, economic turmoil, industrial transformation, and political foment, and it’s filmed in black and white; while the style and content aren’t noir at all, the camerawork definitely finds that sweet spot of bleak beauty in the interplay of light, shadow, and environment.  Oddly enough, it’s also only half a movie; there’s plenty of events that seem off to Western eyes and probably make a bit more sense to Japanese who get the cultural and historical reference, but the abrupt ending must have been jarring even on the domestic front.  Suzuki had proposed it as the first half of a double-feature, the conclusion of which would have told the second half of the novel from which it was adapted, but he got canned by the studio before he could get to work in it.

Our hero this time is big, clumsy galoot Kiroki Nanbu (played by the handsome Hideki Takahashi, who isn’t the world’s most accomplished actor, but does an excellent job with the absurd physical comedy the role requires of him).  He’s a young Catholic enrolled at a military school in the southern port city of Okayama, and he boards with a family whose beautiful daughter Michiko (Junko Asano) he lusts after furiously.  Since it would be improper to make a move on her, and since his religion teaches that self-abuse is a heinous sin, he channels his pent-up sexual frustration into brutal hand-to-hand fighting.  He’s trained by a local ne’er-do-well named Turtle (the appealing Yusuke Kawazu), and after a ridiculously overhyped showdown with the school’s local secret society, he’s banished from the town and starts the whole process over again in the rural mountain community of Aizu.  Eventually, his longing and self-delusion at a fever pitch, he heads off to Tokyo to join up with an ever bigger gang — this time of right-wing revolutionaries.

The most marked thing about Fighting Elegy is that it’s an expressly political film from a moviemaker who usually kept his political opinions on the margins.  Suzuki had served in WWII and found it pointless and destructive, but his attitude was usually one of gallows humor rather than outright protest; but Fighting Elegy is a clear statement that the war in the East was the handiwork of a country that had gone completely mad.  The ending of the film implies what the ending of the novel makes explicit:  that Nanbu is going to join up with the violent ideologues who led Japan to war, first against China and then the whole world, and that he’s not going to live to see the end of that war. Though it’s couched in the language of religion, psychology, sexuality, and emotionality, it’s clear that Suzuki’s message is a condemnation of a society that has rejected reason and civilization in favor of militaristic brutality, a choice he thinks of as more appropriate for immature boys pretending to be men than the kind of people who are supposed to govern a nation.  (The streetfighting youth gangs were a real phenomenon, and one that the warmongers seized upon to further their mad agenda.)

It’s also a political film from a gender standpoint, which is definitely worth exploring given the way women are often portrayed in Japanese cinema of the era and the way Suzuki handles feminine roles generally.  While Michiko is clearly the sensible one (she suitably laughs at Nanbu’s comically macho behavior and represents, through her constant playing of a piano refrain by Schubert, the civilizing influence of the arts), she’s just as sexually repressed as he is, and eventually runs off to join a convent, since unlike men in her society, she doesn’t even have organized violence as an outlet for her frustration.  Fighting Elegy makes much sport of the hyper-machismo of its brawling male figures, asks some pointed questions about their outright rejection of women as ‘soft’, and even has the still lovestruck Nanbu read a goofy manifesto in which he explicitly rejects feminism as anything the tough guys in his gang of idiots should want to be associated with.  I’m not sure if I’d go as far as to call Fighting Elegy a feminist film, but it is unquestionably an anti-masculinist one, and that’s close enough to start an argument.

For all that, though, it’s the furthest thing from a polemic.  Even when he’s making obvious political points, the joker in Suzuki comes out, and he hides them behind loads of black comedy and surrealist craziness:  the insane lengths the gangsters go to in order to deny their sexual urges; the Buster Keaton contrivances of the fights themselves; the hypocritical behavior of the authority figures who should be regulating all this rambunctious behavior; and deranged touches like Nanbu masturbating all over the piano keys poor Michiko had been touching earlier.  It’s also indisputably a Suzuki film from a visual standpoint, and one made during his most productive and inventive period.  There’s lots of amazing filmwork here:  some impressive split-screen editing, an amazing audiovisual trick where the camera pulls in tight on the boasting mouths of the small-towners of Aizu whenever they say the name of the place, and a beautiful scene where Turtle admonishes Nanbu to stay away from women and then flails his wooden sword around as he departs, causing a small shower of cherry blossoms to drift to the ground from a tree.  These are just a few of the treats in a movie overequipped with them.

Fighting Elegy isn’t characteristic of most of Suzuki’s well-known work, but there’s so much in it to talk about.  Its distinctive charm and flair, combined with its nasty satire and some of the most absurd elements of all his movies, makes it perhaps my personal favorite — not his most famous, nor his best, but the one I like to watch the most.

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