Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Seijun Suzuki apparently wasn't happy unless he was turning a genre on its head, and for
this juvenile deliquent saga he reaches back to the anarchic 1930s to make a connection
between male sexual hysteria and political upheaval. Rather frank in its subject matter,
Fighting Elegy plays some amusing visual games and sticks to commercial brawls and
beatings for much of its running time. Yet its subversive comments about Japan's military
heritage are no laughing matter.
1935 Japan. Kiroku Nanbu (Hideki Takahashi) is a perplexed middle school
student torn between his lust for Michiko (Junko Asano), a girl who lives where he rents
a room, and the paramilitary excesses of his macho-obsessed male friends. His father coddles
him after he's expelled for vicious fighting and lack of respect for his teachers, and Kiroku
ends up in equally martial circumstances in a school out in the country. His frustrated
obsession over the virginal Machiko leads to bouts of bizarre masturbation that seem
interchangeable with the need to fight. All of this militant energy is eventually
superceded by the news that similar gangs of young military school officers in Tokyo are
being used for mass assassinations against non-conservative government officials, including
the Prime Minister.
Kiroku is your garden-variety mixed-up thug. Backed up by his lethally-skilled best buddy
"Turtle" (Yusuke Kawazu), he can't resist any challenge to fight and devotes himself to the
code of his paramilitary school gang. This idealistic little mob demands that its members
defy as many school rules as possible. They also tell Kiroku to have nothing to do with girls,
as romantic thoughts a sure sign of un-manly weakness.
Enraptured by the daughter of his landlord, Kiroku has difficulties squaring his behavior
with his pledge. He purposely causes trouble at school by showing up for military drill without
shoes and talking back to his apoplectic principal (Isao Tamagawa). He almost faints at piano
lessons with Michiko, and then runs off (into a white-bleached interior dimension) to either
masturbate or do battle with gang foes. The activities are seen as interchangeable. The
masturbation is only alluded to, but there's one strange moment where Kiroku plays the
piano using ... ah, you have to see it for yourself.
Kiroku, his girlfriend and Turtle are all Japanese Catholics, a dimension that is given strong
emphasis here. How that context relates to Kiroku's problems, I could not discern. An equal
mystery is the fact that these military school kids are all supposed to be in their middle
teens yet not a one seems younger than twenty-five.
It's interesting that the films of the supposedly more formal Japanese culture should be so
open about sexuality. Seijun Suzuki uses the delinquent hormones of his teen heroes to
make a bold political statement. According to the liner notes from critic and historian Tony
Rayns (much appreciated by this viewer), in the 1930s groups of wildly enthusiastic young
military officers little older than Kiroku's crazed associates became a political tool in
the hands of the right-wing Army fanatics that took over Japan. In what has been described
as "government by assassination," these unrestrained but altruistic youths were easily
duped into eliminating most of the moderates in favor of Army zealots that dreamed of the
conquest of large parts of Asia and Indochina. The American equivalent would have the NeoCons use
West Point Cadets to murder the Kennedy Clan and most of our Californian representatives. Only
crazy conspiracy theorists would believe such a thing could happen here.
Suzuki expresses the political chaos in his concluding act. A distraught Michiko must throw
herself into the snow to avoid being trampled by marching militia composed mostly of schoolboys.
Kiroku discovers that the old sage he saw in a mountain tea room is a radical activist
wanted for encouraging youthful rebellion in the name of feudal-era codes of honor. When we
last see Kiroku, he's on his way to Tokyo to find his destiny in the new military order.
Political fanaticism of course raged in Germany and other European countries in the 1930s ...
but there's little talk now of similar trends in American of the time. In 1933 Cecil B.
DeMille made This Day and Age, a pro-vigilante film in which college students turn
a symbolic "student government" day into a purge of street gangsters. Cocky frat boys trap
gangster Charles Bickford and hang him over a pit of rats to force a confession. Then they
all sing around a bonfire, fascist style. The law is a waste of time and only useful to the
bad guys, as later put forward in movies like Dirty Harry. Interestingly, when Cy
Endfield made the "subversive" Try and Get Me! in 1950, a bunch of rowdy drunken
frat boys are the first volunteers to storm a police station and lynch two suspected
kidnap-murderers. These Japanese hooligans are cut from the same cloth - know-nothing
jerks looking for the right channel for their aggression.
Suzuki uses some jarring camera techniques, sort of a jokey variation on the weird tricks
he employed in demented yakuza tales like Branded to Kill. Split screens are used
to separate teacher and students in Kiroku's classroom, and ridiculously jarring cuts from
a wide master to ultra close-ups are used when authority figures in Kiroku's new school spout
the rules at him. That sense of fun disappears in the last few scenes, where the quick-marching
recruits on the snowy road look like a faceless, menacing mob from the future.
Criterion's DVD of Fighting Elegy is a clean transfer of a slightly contrasty master
element for this well-directed B&W 'scope film. The enhanced picture is matched by a
clear soundtrack that flatters the interesting score, some of which sounds as if it came
from an Italian movie.
As explained above, Tony Rayns' insert essay is essential reading for the viewer unfamiliar
with Japanese history. The trailer is even more illuminating. In contrast to the liberal,
anti-militarist tone of the film itself, the coming attraction shouts text slogans such as,
"These were the good old days!" Talk about mixed messages...
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fighting Elegy rates:
Supplements: liner notes by Tony Rayns
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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