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The first time around, I was a little lost on this one. I didn't have the proper knowledge of its historical context. The Criterion liner notes are a big help. I just wish I had read them more recently. This is a satire of the militaristic attitude that eventually lead Japan into WWII. I remembered it being a comedy. It does have its comic moments, mostly involving Kiroku's uncontrollable erections, but it is rather serious in tone. Well, that's even a little weird. Suzuki is able to create a remarkable balance between the film's serious themes, its action sequences, as well as its comic touches. All the while, he creates a film of outstanding imagery, gorgeous cinematography, and artful editing. To think, Suzuki Seijun had probably no ability to choose which films he made. He was a bit lucky to land this one, though, as it was written by Kaneto Shindo, who had to be hot stuff after having already directed both The Island and Onibaba (though I wouldn't know how those films were received in Japan). This is one of only two Suzuki films that stand outside of the yakuza genre, so here (and in Story of a Prostitute) he was able to deal with deeper themes than normal. But anyway, Suzuki had little control over what material he was to direct, one way or another. I find his ability to create great art infinitely more impressive than any number of cinematic artists who had more or less complete control over their own work. It would be utterly wrong not to include Suzuki in the pantheon of the world's greatest film artists.
Even though it suffers from acute VBS (Vinnie Barbarino Syndrome, i.e. all
the "schoolchildren" are Thirtyish), this tale of burgeoning adolescent
sexuality and burgeoning adolescent aggression is both funny and powerful.
Directed by Suzuki Seijun [Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill] and scripted by
Shindo Kaneto [who was in turn the director of Onibaba], Elegy to Violence
has a lot more to say about conformity and militarism than allegedly
profound films like Teshigihara's Face of Another.
As the young lad torn between swooning adoration for his Catholic girlfriend and the sense of power and purity he finds in paramilitary gangs, Hideki Takahashi overplays marvelously. He is an encyclopedia of twitches and cringing at first, but that gradually gives way to ridiculous hypermachismo as he gets into more and more fights. (or, as the subtitles put it, "scuffles")
Seijun Suzuki shows that he is keenly aware of the absurdity that underlies all of that hyperbolically heroic bloodshed that makes his other films so sublime.
But those of you just looking for your fix of hip 60s cinema won't be disappointed--with cartoonish sound effects, brutal action, stoned continuity, split screens, sudden fits of slapstick worthy of The Knack or Help!, and immortal lines like "Your manhood will cry if you are afraid" and "Oh Michiko, I do not masturbate--I FIGHT!", how can you go wrong?
Watch for the scene in which Our Hero climbs a watch tower to witness a "scuffle" that he himself fomented--an explicit homage to Yojimbo.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the little Suzuki festival I made myself of four recent DVD
releases, this stood out. The up-front, if onanistic, humor linked to
the political and military era, the Christian religious aspect, the
protagonist's inane yet never-ending need to hit people, the huge, huge
gang fight, and the relative absence of organized crime, the brazen
aping of things military all struck me. But what really stays is the
shimmering 2.35:1 black and white imagery. Somehow it differs from the
2.35 b/w of a crime flick like Underworld Beauty or the urban desert of
Branded to Kill. There's a deliberative fuzziness, a quavery living
light about most scenes that has to have been an artistic choice. It
evokes the period in a way that today's filmmakers might try and fail
with sepia. Imagine Mizoguchi with a super wide canvas.
Can't find it in my shelves today, but my favorite account of black and white film-making is Cocteau's diary of the making of Beauty and the Beast. Weeks and months would slip by while Cocteau waited to bounce just the right sunlight off some sheets hung to dry or Beauty's cheek or hair. Certainly not the case here: Suzuki wanted to shoot in color. The miracle that's Fighting Elegy was actually bum luck, his second choice. He was making film after film within studio schedules and guidelines. Even so, this film's black and white shines.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
* minor spoilers * Fighting Elegy is the crowning feature of a 6 DVD
package of Suzuki's work (also featuring the wacky Tokyo Drifter and
similar gems), released in 2003 in France (region 2, French subtitles
Wonderfully shot in black and white, with a swiftness and a brutality one finds more and more disturbing as the (very grim) end nears... It indeed reminded me of Ferdydurke (the book, not the film, which was rather a disappointment), with its mixture of male hysteria, repressed sexuality and elegance.
(And it is an additional pleasure to think that Suzuki Seijun is still around !)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Kiroku Nanbu seems to be a decent enough fellow. A Catholic, he attends
church regularly with the family with whom he boards. He is respectful
to his father, his elders, including older schoolmates, and adores
Michiko a young girl who is the pinnacle of purity and innocence.
However, Kiroku has another side as well. Beneath his kind ways, which
are definitely genuine, lurks the heart and soul of a fighter.
Constantly throughout the films eighty-six minutes Kiroku fights his
way through upperclassmen and students at rival schools. Kiroku is the
embodiment of "Koha" or the "hard school." Like Miyamoto Musashi,
members of the hard school were supposed to hone their fighting skills
to perfection and be the quintessence of masculinity, however, in order
to reach this peak of manliness, the men were supposed to be
indifferent to women. Yet, Kiroku cannot get the image of his beloved
Michiko out of his head.
Not wanting to sully the perfect image of Michiko that resides in his mind, Kiroku avoids taking "matters" into his own hands Therefore he gets into fights to use up his energy. However, Michiko also seems to like our young hero because of his manliness and desires to teach him such things as English and the piano. However, this of course causes Kiroku more anguish because he cannot get images such as Michiko's "white hands" out of his mind.
Taking place in Okayama in the year 1935, Suzuki sets the film during Japan's expansionist period. The hard school image along with the power of the Japanese spirit was promulgated by the heads of the Imperial Japanese Army, and later Mishima Yukio, and this mentality led to the needless deaths of thousands of Japanese soldiers who charged into battles, in later years, with the superior forces of the Soviet Union. As he criticized the American occupation of Japan in Gate of Flesh, Suzuki in Fighting Elegy makes a farce out of the hard school.
Fighting Elegy is an incredibly fun film by one of Japan's most individualistic directors. With its tongue-in-cheek look at Japan during the 1930s and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese military, Suzuki allows the audience to view young men so caught up in the ideals of manliness that they struggle to become full individuals. However, being that this is a Suzuki Seijun film, a director who states that there are no deeper meanings to his films than their entertainment value, my above statements might mean little more than ashes in water. Yet, it is definitely a fun ride!
This was only my fourth Seijun Suzuki film - after TOKYO DRIFTER (1966), BRANDED TO KILL (1967) and PISTOL OPERA (2001) - and it's a typically energetic outing, with strong doses of comedy augmenting the character study of a young man who can only express himself adequately through violence and how he is forced to take stock of his life after falling in love with a cultured young girl. Drawing obvious parallels to FIGHT CLUB (1999), the film's fight scenes are quite well done but, even more interestingly, it looks forward to the struggle between religious faith and a violent environment that would surface in later films, primarily the work of Martin Scorsese (the script of FIGHTING ELEGY was penned by Kaneto Shindo, director of THE NAKED ISLAND  and ONIBABA !). However, the film runs out of steam towards the end by taking an unexpectedly serious (and propagandist) turn which doesn't sit comfortably with the anarchy that had gone on before!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've always found middle-aged students in motion pictures more than a little humorous in and of themselves (see THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE), but FIGHTING ELEGY, with its rousing opening score and its socialpaths in (goose-)step with the times, manages to rumble right past that little incongruity like a locomotive through a long, dark tunnel. There's plenty of ear-gnawing action, here, as our hot-blooded hero channels his sexual frustration(s) into brawl after brawl in an attempt to become "a man's man." (And I'm not going to touch that one with a ten-foot pole...) After all, he is told, "One must be a man above all." Even if it means playing a piano without his hands... Some of the almost 3D-looking effects were ahead of their time; certainly I don't recall seeing shots like this in a movie that wasn't 3D. One can almost hear the announcer's voice, all aquiver with repressed passion, when the trailer for this one first ran: "See hot-blooded youth EXPLODE across the screen!" Whew. Think I need a shower.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Okay, so Seijun Suzuki's movie "Fighting Elegy" has a little bit more
to it than that--as Suzuki movies are wont to do, post-modernly. But as
a film-goer who delights in the good, the bad, AND the ugly coming out
of Japan while the majority of Italian film leaves him cold (except
Antonioni, who is a personal god), some of the more Italian-influenced
scenes in this movie sent me into near hysterics. You know, it's not
often movies make me laugh as much as this one did.
Satire is the intention in this one, and it most primarily reminds me of "Amarcord"--only, you know, without the navel-gazing. Suzuki drops Fellini's typical approach to the Carnivalesque and replaces it with gorgeous, luminous black-and-white imagery. It also reminds me of a Godard film, in terms of editing style--only, you know, without the navel-gazing. Often movies seem like they must have been fun to be in, or they look like they were fun to make, but this one looks like it was a lot of fun to edit. Pretty much nothing editing-wise is held sacred as Suzuki plays around with split frames, sudden extreme closeups, and yes, jump cuts.
But what it's all about? Young, Catholic Kiroku is in love with his flat-mate Michiko; so much so, in fact, that he finds himself having to get into fights in order to get his passion and sexual frustration out (masturbation isn't allowed 'cause the Lord disapproves--setting the scene for one of the most hilarious moments of fetishism in screen history). He joins a ridiculously-dressed gang in order to regularly be involved in fights, and their rules and edicts both keep him separated from Michiko as well as eventually kicked out of school. He moves to the Aizu on the countryside, where he immediately gets into more fights and eventually starts an epic gang battle that lasts an entire night. Victorious, there's practically nothing left to do but join Japan's pre-WWII army, gearing up for the Imperialism the world is very familiar with.
That's all morbid and stuff, but the tone is pitch-perfect for Suzuki's satirical implications. Kiroku's blind passion is used to make fun of anything from duck-walking and melodramatic teenage drama to general male machismo and the undertones of male impotency. The intense imagery fits Kiroku's proto-fascist male Romanticism to a cue, and ultimately his relationship to Michiko becomes the best tongue-in-cheek nod to teenage stupidity since Romeo and Juliet.
Meanwhile, I stress the Italian influence. Italian music, the jabs at Catholicism, and a particularly familiar scene by the sea-shore back up this theme while the general story involves the idea of fascism in the particularly Italian sense, that of basically roving gangs of bullies looking to the extremes of the law to cover their dissatisfaction, leading to the belief of violence as the ultimate social right. This contrasts with the more clichéd view of pre-war Japanese Imperialism where the soldiers are most often shown as devoted machine-like automatons for the state juggernaut, as opposed to overly hormonal teens.
Anyway, I've seen some great Suzuki films, but this has instantly become by far my favorite one. It's also one the best Japanese comedies I've seen so far--nay, one of the best comedies no matter the country of origin. Highly recommended for some body laughs, and your eyes will love the scenery, too.
It has become clear that Seijun Suzuki is the Wong Jing of Japan,
sporting an equally lame sense of "humor" that consists of hysterical
behavior and incessant screaming within poorly constructed, thoughtless
scenarios. It's no wonder this idiot got canned by Nikkatsu and
subsequently blacklisted after his lame crapfest "Branded to Kill"
(1967), which showcased ineptly constructed shootouts, gratuitous
sexual content, lots of bad acting, and a preposterous ending with some
dimwit acting hysterical in a boxing ring. If a director of mine
dropped that pile of elephant compost on my desk, I'd fire his ass too.
As a viewer, I was unlucky enough to experience Suzuki's "Pistol Opera" (2001) first, which still holds the dubious record for "Worst Movie Ever Made" in my book. With "Princess Raccoon" (2005), however, Suzuki proved that his abject stupidity could yield a flawed, yet moderately entertaining film, but my patience is running thin. I've got lots of Asian movies to watch, and I don't like wasting my time with directors who have a 33% success ratio. "Fighting Elegy" (1966) just made it 25%.
At no point is this movie remotely funny or engaging. It uses the "40-year-old acting like a juvenile child" gag that in and of itself is utterly lame and it just grates on the nerves from the very first minute. Characters have zero complexity and the fight scenes are a disgrace in their artificiality and persistent use of biting, nosepicking, and people falling over each other. None of the fights look real and seem to be the victim of incompetent directing as the baddies look as if their swatting flies the entire time. The camera-work uses amateur ploys like random closeups and rapid editing for no apparently good reason. These tactics are sure fire points of condemnation when presented in modern day films, but somehow magically become "brilliant" and "masterful" when presented in a Japanese film released before 1970. Go figure.
Don't misunderstand me, because I really do like pre-1970 Japanese cinema. Seriously, I do. For example, of the 17 Yasujiro Ozu films I've had the pleasure of seeing, 4 were excellent, 5 were very good, 6 were good, and 2 were mediocre. That's an 88% success ratio, which means that I froth at the mouth to watch more of his films. However, the difference between a great director like Ozu and low-talent assclowns like Seijun Suzuki and Akira Kurosawa is that Ozu is capable of directing actors properly and understands that quaint realism can supersede thoughtless hysterical behavior and/or melodramatic fluff.
On a side note, I fired up a few of Suzuki's interviews that were included as special features on the DVD releases. It's uncomfortable hearing him pat himself on the back while gloating about the fact that he focuses on entertainment value first and foremost. The problem is that Suzuki's idea of "entertainment" results in contrived silliness mixed with uninteresting, undeveloped content. I fear that the only reason "Princess Raccoon" worked as an entertainment vehicle was because it had an implicitly interesting premise and was structured within a self-referential fantasy world where contrivance felt natural. Perhaps Suzuki should make another stage-play style musical, because his attempts at real life humor are abysmal and shallow at best.
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