Fighting Elegy (けんかえれじい, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Fighting Elegy PosterAh, 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)

Outlaw: Heartless (大幹部 無頼非情, Mio Ezaki, 1968)

heartlessThings take a slight detour in the third of the Outlaw series this time titled “Heartless” (大幹部 無頼非情, Daikanbu Burai Hijo). Rather than picking up where we left Goro – collapsed on a high school volleyball court, it’s now 1956 and we’re with a guy called “Goro the Assassin” but it’s not exactly clear is this is a side story or perhaps an entirely different continuity for the story of the noble hearted gangster we’ve been following so far. The only constant is actor Tetsuya Watari who once again plays Goro Fujikawa but in an even more confusing touch the supporting characters are played by many of the actors who featured in the first two films but are actually playing entirely different people….

So, it’s 1956 and this time Goro is out on a job to take out a rival gangster only he has a change of heart when the man’s wife pleads with him. Goro tells the pair to leave through the back door but one of the other gangsters turns up before they can escape and takes care of the husband whilst casting a watchful eye on the now treacherous Goro. Right before his lights go out, the murdered man tells Goro that he’s been framed as part of the boss’ gambling scam and tasks Goro with taking his sickly wife to Nagoya for medical treatment. After cleaning out the bad guys at the gambling den, Goro takes off with wife in tow and even runs into an old friend along the way but as usual nothing’s quite a simple as it seems.

If the problem with Gangster VIP 2 was staying too close to the formula established in the previous film, then Heartless perhaps attempts to overcorrect this flaw by doing something completely different. It’s really not clear how this film links in with the other two and the presence of most of the same actors playing entirely different characters is more than a little confusing to say the least, though it is a problem which occurs quite frequently with these kinds of films and is largely due to the way they were produced at studio level.

Once again the roots of restless gangsters lie post-war turmoil as the fellow ex-mobster Goro runs into is another childhood friend from the streets – Goro actually saved his life when he became dangerously ill by sneaking onto a US military base to “acquire” some penicillin (quite a canny move for a young boy, it has to be said). There’s less harking back to the theme of homes and hometowns than in the first two movies – yakuza wives take on a bigger role instead, becoming the symbol of a more normal life that is somewhat denied to both gangsters (ex or otherwise) and also burdening their husbands with the need to ensure their safety.

As in the first two films, Goro is referred to as being “different” from the regular yakuza. His potential love interest (again played by Chieko Matsubara but not as Yukiko from the other two movies) argues with her father who was also a yakuza but gave up the gangster life for love of her mother – he warns her off men of Goro’s ilk as they rarely do anything from the kindness of their hearts, but she remonstrates with him that Goro isn’t that kind of gangster. This time he’s also carrying around a bracelet that belonged to an old flamed called “Natsuko” that we haven’t heard of before but gives his pleas not to take a man like him to heart a little more weight.

Heartless is the only film in the series to be directed by Mio Ezaki (the first being directed by Toshio Masuda and the others by Keiichi Ozawa) and has little of the visual style of the first two movies though the title sequence of Goro single handedly raiding the gambling den proves a stylish early highlight. In keeping with the other two films we still have a large scale fight sequence nearing the finale which is played against the song of a cabaret singer and there’s even a little strange slapstick as the final fight ends up in some kind of decorators’ warehouse with everyone sliding around and getting covered in paint. After taking care business Goro tries to exile himself again, staggering off in an uncertain direction whilst the song playing extols the lonely fate of a “wandering man” which is perhaps the only heart he carries – the ruined heart of a “heartless” man with no roots or anchor to tie him home, a wanderer with no clansmen and no hope of salvation.


Outlaw: Heartless is the third of six films included in Arrow films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original trailer:

Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

nikutai_no_mon_2_film-1600x900-c-defaultWhat are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.

A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?

Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.

The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.

Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.

This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.

When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.


Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.