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.
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: