Ah, youth. It explains so many things though, sadly, only long after it’s passed. For the young men who had the misfortune to come of age in the 1930s, their glory days are filled with bittersweet memories as their personal development occurred against a backdrop of increasing political division. Seijun Suzuki was not exactly apolitical in his filmmaking despite his reputation for “nonsense”, but in Fighting Elegy (けんかえれじい, Kenka Elegy) he turns a wry eye back to his contemporaries for a rueful exploration of militarism’s appeal to the angry young man. When emotion must be sublimated and desire repressed, all that youthful energy has to go somewhere and so the unresolved tensions of the young men of Japan brought about an unwelcome revolution in a misguided attempt at mastery over the self.
Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) is an impulsive young man with a magnetic personality who, like many of his age, has found himself at a military training school designed to toughen up the boys of Japan for the glorious services they will later be expected to provide for the emperor. Very much into his training, Kiroku submits himself to the rigid codes of the school which prize virility and encourage competitive brawling between the boys. Despite the strict prohibition on soft stuff like getting it on with girls, Kiroku has developed a heavy crush on the daughter at his Catholic boarding house, Michiko (Junko Asano). Delighting in her piano playing, Kiroku cannot find a permissible way to express his desires and so records them in a very frank diary. Michiko, it seems, may return his feelings but times being what they are cannot say or do anything until he declares them and so things are left to simmer between the two with no useful place to go.
Despite belonging to a military school, Kiroku’s main outlet is in a kind of extracurricular club which is obsessed with being manly but also with rebelliousness and showing how individualist they can be through a series of challenges which often involve flagrantly breaking the rules of the school. Kiroku’s violent escapades eventually get him expelled and sent to a different institution a few towns over which explicitly prizes the “Aizu Spirit”. By now truly invidualist in his isolation, Kiroku is disappointed in the tenets of the “Aizu Spirit”. Calling all of his fellow students “wild monkeys”, Kiroku makes some odd comments on the nature of oppression and dominance by pointing out that the students all willingly submit to the teacher who demonstrates authentic authority, but refuse to respect the ones who simply don’t have it. This is, in a sense, the opposite of the philosophy which Kiroku has come to follow in which pleasure comes from rebelliousness and the natural tendency of the young to resist all forms of constraining power.
However, the most primal constraining force acting on Kiroku is sexual desire as a running joke finds him consistently bothered by unwanted erections which he then has to hide from his comrades to avoid embarrassment. Kiroku is quite passionately obsessed with Michiko to the point that he thinks of little else despite the total prohibition on female contact advanced by his military training. His diaries are full of notes about how he dreams of her delicate hands though he lies about refusing to masturbate in favour of pouring all of his virility into his violent pursuits. The situation is complicated by the presence of Christian religion which places a further taboo on the young people’s desires as they glance guiltily at the crosses on the walls each time impure thoughts arrive. Michiko is not much better off, though her own frustrations result in internalised rather externalised violence which looks set to rob her of her own happiness but lacks the all encompassing destructive element of Kiroku’s unresolved energy.
Suzuki’s message is clear, if somewhat blunt. If only these young men and women had been allowed to work out their frustrations in a more normalised way, the entire folly of warfare and imperialist expansion could have been avoided. The Christian context does add to the levels of guilt and repression, but it is one layer further than the average farm boy from rural Japan who suddenly found himself caught up in the fascist movement would have experienced. Events reach their natural conclusion at the end of the film as Kiroku reads a newspaper report of the declaration of martial law in Tokyo following the February 26th Incident in which a cabal of hotheaded young military officers launched a broadly leftwing yet authoritarian coup designed to delegitimise the government and restore power to the emperor in a return to paternalistic feudalism. His romantic dream shattered, Kiroku recognises a kindred spirit and finds a calling in the call to arms but his vocation is a false one in its negation of everything it is to be alive. The path of militarism leads only to death and destruction in its pointless and nihilistic quest to overcome rather than satisfy ordinary desires and the forces which divide Kiroku and Michiko are those same forces which bring such overriding misery to a society caught in its own difficult adolescence.
Original trailer (English subtitles)