Bu Su (BU・SU, Jun Ichikawa, 1987)

Busu poster 2Already a well respected and much in demand director of television commercials Jun Ichikawa released his debut feature, Bu Su (BU・SU), in 1987. “Bu Su” is, loosely translated, pejorative slang for a woman who is not considered to be attractive. The closest equivalent, in British English at least, would be something like “a dog”. It’s especially ironic then that the movie was conceived as a vehicle for a popular idol whose success was perhaps dependent on a perception of attractiveness, or at least of “kawaii” innocence. Yasuko Tomita was at that time at the height of her fame having shot to stardom through open audition leading to an award winning role in Aiko 16 Sai. Two years later she starred for Nobuhiko Obayashi, who was originally slated to direct Bu Su, in Miss Lonely, but even in comparison to Obayashi’s melancholy heroines, Bu Su’s Mugiko (Yasuko Tomita) is a particularly moody teen, the “ugliness” here apparently relating to her emotional isolation.

For reasons we never quite understand, Mugiko leaves her island home after a traumatic incident and moves in with her aunt in Tokyo with the intention of becoming a geisha. It seem’s Mugiko’s mother was once a famous geisha herself until she met Mugiko’s late father and left for a more conventional life in the peaceful countryside. Mugiko’s flight then has a peculiarly perverse quality in being both to and from her mother with whom she seems to be on bad terms despite her mother’s obvious affection for her. Unfortunately Mugiko is not a fantastic fit for the world of the geisha, being somewhat innocent and childishly clumsy, not to mention her ongoing grumpiness. Nevertheless, everyone at the geisha house is keen to help her if only out of loyalty to her mother.

At school, meanwhile, Mugiko is nervous and withdrawn, barely audible during her introduction to her new classmates and with her eyes permanently on the floor. Her teacher, taking her aside, adds to the mystery in remarking that she’s certainly been through a lot back in Izu and that she should leave all that behind and try to make a new start. Nevertheless, she remains sullen and isolated, barely speaking to anyone yet perhaps examining the dynamics of the people around her. Maybe that’s why she alone finds the strength to stand up to a popular kid bullying another girl (Yuriko Hirooka) considered to be “plain” with a mean trick teasing a nasty surprise lurking in a box which turns out to be nothing more than a hand mirror.

Mugiko might not be quite sure what it is that’s worrying her, or at least we can’t be sure because we don’t know exactly what happened in Izu, but the rest of her classmates have their own insecurities to deal with from Sakurako’s preoccupation with her perceived lack of looks to boxing enthusiast Tsuda (Masahiro Takashima) who knows he’s not much for studying but is less than convinced of the possibility of living off his fists. What they’re going through is the normal teenage process of figuring themselves out, which they begin to do through the time-honoured fashion of the school cultural festival which is an extra special event this year because it’s the school’s centenary. Goaded into it by the mean popular girl who meant to embarrass her by outing her as a geisha, Mugiko agrees to dance the dance of Yaoya Oshichi who was prepared to burn the world in the hope of meeting her love.

Yaoya Oshichi was burned at the stake for arson, and though Mugiko’s path eventually ends in flames they’re of a much less threatening variety. When she first arrives in Tokyo we see her taking in some of the iconic sights of the city, crossing at Shibuya Scramble and taking a stroll through upscale Ginza before taking a bite out of a fast food hamburger as if she were about to taste some famous local delicacy. When not training with the other geisha we see her wander through the city alone, sullen but also taking pleasure in exploring her new environment. It’s here that we hear the film’s title uttered, crudely, by a sleazy middle-aged man who picks Mugiko up and takes her to a coffeeshop where he embarks on weird chat up lines about the beauty of the local railway before trying to drag her into a love hotel. Luckily, Mugiko manages to get away from him only for the man to shout “busu” after her, implying that he didn’t want her anyway but also that her refusal is in someway arrogant.

By Ichikawa’s logic, Mugiko’s “busu”ness is not because she’s “ugly” but that she’s so sour faced, permanently sulky and angrily keeping a deliberate distance from everyone around her. We see her spikily refuse her mother’s tearful attempt to see her off to the train, and then speak rudely to her on the phone, while remaining aloof from most of the other geishas save her aunt’s daughter, primed to take over the business but unbeknownst to most longing for a more conventional life with a boring salaryman husband. Yet through all of these encounters, some friendlier than others, her heart finally begins to open and she’s no longer so closed off or aloof, eventually able to laugh along with her mother and pithily dismiss her questions with the generic answers that Tokyo is “fun” and yes she’s going to school. Mugiko’s path is certainly a meandering one, taking the scenic route through the charms of bubble era Tokyo, but it has its charms and even if she takes her time she gets there in the end, smiling at last having rediscovered the joys of being alive.


Short clip (Japanese subtitles only)

Knockout (どついたるねん, Junji Sakamoto, 1989)

Knockout cap 1Thirty years after his debut, the career of director Junji Sakamoto has proved hard to pin down. An early focus on manly action drama gave way to character pieces, issue films, and comedy, but it was with his breakout first feature Knockout (どついたるねん, Dotsuitarunen) that something like a signature style was born. One of Japan’s many boxing movies (perhaps an unexpectedly populous genre), Knockout is once again the story of a man fighting himself as he struggles to overcome serious physical injury, emotional trauma, and his own fiercely unpleasant personality to finally become the kind of champion he has always feared himself incapable of becoming.

Dreaming dreams of boxing glory, Adachi (Hidekazu Akai) trained hard since he was a small boy and eventually became a champion of the ring. However, an ill-timed blow from a subpar opponent left him with an unexpected, life threatening injury requiring brain surgery after which he was advised to stay behind the ropes for the remainder of his days. A total asshole with a violent streak, Adachi can’t help alienating all those around him including childhood friend Takako (Haruko Sagara) whose father owns the National Brand gym where he used to train and had given vague promises of taking over once he retired. In his newly irritable state, Adachi has decided to start his own high class gym and has teamed up with a boxing enthusiast friend, Harada (Tetsuya Yuki), who runs a gay club, to buy National Brand’s promoter license to set up alone.

This being the kind of film that it is, it’s a given that Adachi will eventually want to get back in the ring despite all the inherent risks to his physical body. Nevertheless, the journey towards that realisation will be a humbling one as he is forced to confront the fact that he is a terrible person whose intense self obsession and intimidating behaviour has everyone around him walking on eggshells. Consequently, he does not make a particularly good boxing coach thanks to his didactic methods and rigid insistence on doing everything his own way. Only the kindly assistance of an older man, Sajima (Yoshio Harada), who also retired from the ring through injury, begins to show him the error of his ways but it’s not until he’s truly alienated all of his prospective pupils, as well as his patient backer, that he finally understands where it is that he belongs. 

Set in his native Osaka, Sakamoto weaves a rich tapestry of local life from the feisty Takako who dearly wanted to get in the ring herself only to be met with the constant refrain that boxing’s not for girls, to the mysterious Harada and his largely offscreen gay bar at which Adachi seems to be a frequent yet unwilling visitor who claims the place is too “weird” and fears interacting with others in the establishment. Meanwhile the applicants at his new gym which promises training with a “kindly” coach run from young toughs to softening salarymen desperate to engage with their dwindling masculinity. This is definitively a manly affair in which the frustrations of young(ish) men take centre stage though mainly through the destructive effects they have on the world around them – you’ll nary find a face around here that doesn’t have a bruise on it. While Adachi’s parents tiptoe around their own son as if he were some sort of gangster, Takako is the only one willing and able to stand up to him save the late entry of Sajima who appears to be dealing with some neatly symmetrical family issues of his own.

Starring real life boxer Hidekazu Akai, Knockout strives for realism in the ring even whilst emphasising the ongoing psychodrama that lies behind it. Adachi, like many boxing heroes, is engaged in constant battle with himself, trying to overcome the frightened little boy he once was rather than accepting him and admitting that even older he is often still scared and angry without really knowing why. Perhaps through his final, infinitely dangerous entry into the ring he will find some kind of answers to the questions he has been too afraid to ask but he has, in any case, become less of a problem for those around him in his continued quest towards becoming the best version of himself.


Tokyo Fist (東京フィスト, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)

tokyo-fist_still_7Following on from their excellent remastered Tetsuo set and the more recent Kotoko, Third Window Films have again brought us another classic film from the back catalogue of one of Japan’s most underrated auteurs – Shinya Tsukamoto.

Tsuda (played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself) is a hard working insurance salesman in mid ‘90s Tokyo. He lives with a beautiful fiancée in a pretty nice flat and everything seems to be going pretty well for him except that he’s been so unbearably tired lately. Then, one fateful day a colleague asks him to deliver some money to a boxing club (which sounds kind of dodgy in itself) where he’s spotted by an old acquaintance, Kojima (played by Shinya Tsukamoto’s boxer brother Koji). Though it’s clear Tsuda doesn’t wish to resume a friendship with Kojima, somehow he still manages to worm his way into his life. This unwanted intrusion from the past begins to deeply unsettle the civilised life Tsuda and Hizaru had been living up to this point and sets them on a path of atavistic disintegration.

When you look at Tsuda at the beginning of the movie, it’s easy to think he’s ‘happy’ because the life he seems to be living is ‘normal’. He works hard, he lives with a woman he intends to marry and they seem settled and well matched. However, if you look more closely, you can see the cracks are all there even before Kojima turns up. His ‘tiredness’ is perhaps a symptom of the dissatisfaction he might not even realise he’s feeling with his boring, ordinary city life. When Hizaru, his girlfriend, asks him sensitively about his tiredness and suggests maybe he’s overworking and that she wouldn’t mind continuing to work even after they get married Tsuda’s reaction is quite telling. He doesn’t say anything particularly, he doesn’t argue, but it’s clear that he resents the suggestion and is clearly annoyed by it. This, and her subsequent comments to Kojima regarding Tsuda’s physique further undermine his masculinity and you can see that even before the catalyst of Kojima’s arrival, Tsuda’s mental state is quite fraught and his rage is already simmering quietly beneath thin layer of civility that is city life.

When Kojima finally does arrive, he does so like a pathogen infecting Tsuda first at the boxing club. Tsuda brings him home (inadvertently) to his girlfriend who is then also infected with a new strain of individualism. When Tsuda visits Kojima’s apartment to confront him about making a pass at Hizaru, what he finds is a lithe, glistening, insect-like physical force. His movements are uncanny, seemingly too fast for a human yet slightly jerky and lacking in grace. Despite the fact that everyone at the gym thinks Kojima is a terrible boxer (even when he actually wins a fight everyone seems bored) he possesses  the physical strength to knock Tsuda not only across the room but through a wall. The exaggerated, manga-like violence only further intensifies Kojima’s total dominance over Tsuda. Hizaru looks on with a curious expression which seems part way between wonder and disgust at Kojima’s increasingly bug-like appearance.

As a couple, Tsuda and Hizaru seem to have a fondness for watching old, subtitled European movies of an evening – Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Both films, of course, that have something to say about ‘the city’. In The Third Man, Harry Lime’s crimes are only possible because of the unique situation of post-war Vienna. In Metropolis, famously, the city is an organism worked by an underclass of slave workers who are little more than cogs in the machine. The city assumes part of your own personality, strips you of your individuality and replaces it with a job title. It numbs you to the finer emotions and the only way left to re-assert your existence is to open yourself up to pain. In Tokyo Fist, the city is of course Tokyo, but really it could be any city any time. Living in such a codified way etches away at your humanity until barely a husk remains as you live out the day to day demands a city makes of its people. By the end of the film, the three central characters have been through an extended battle with this ‘city tax’ but whether the result is a death of the soul or a recovery is perhaps a matter for debate.

Tokyo Fist certainly a very rich film which repays repeat viewings and is open to a great number of interpretations. Like his earlier Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the film often works on a purely sensory level and needs to be experienced rather than considered but that isn’t to say it’s without plot or action. The fight scenes are intense and frenetic, captured in Tsukamoto’s trademark style, yet the boxing scenes do also have a very authentic ring to them. Tokyo Fist is a masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema that has long been underserved by sub quality releases. This remastered HD presentation from Third Window Films, supervised by Tsukamoto himself, finally restores the film to its rightful position with a truly outstanding blu-ray release. Tokyo Fist is a hugely intriguing and important film which richly deserves a place in any collection.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films!

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First published on UK Anime Network in November 2013.