Fighting Elegy (Kenka erejii) [DVD]
Director : Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay : Kaneto Shindô (based on the novel by Takashi Suzuki)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : Hideki Takahashi (Kiroku Nanbu), Junko Asano (Michiko), Yusuke Kawazu (Turtle), Mitsuo Kataoka (Takuan), Chikako Miyagi (Yoshino Nanbu), Isao Tamagawa (Principal of Kitakata J.H.S.), Keisuke Noro (Kaneda), Hiroshi Midorigawa (Ikki Kita), Seijiro Onda (Kiroku’s father)
Japanese B-movie maverick Seijun Suzuki’s films often mixed sex and violence in bizarre and intriguing ways. In Fighting Elegy, he again mixes the two, except this time it’s in an either/or proposition. The film’s hero, devoutly Catholic teenager Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi), is faced with sexual temptations and turns to increasing violence as a way to sublimate his adolescent carnal desires. So, even as sex and violence are put into conflict with each other, they are completely intertwined in that one stands in for the other.
The film is set in Japan in the early 1930s, a crucial period for modern Japanese history in which the kind of militaristic imperialism that would lead the country to side with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in World War II was solidifying in the national mindset. In a sense, then, Kiroku functions as a metonym for Japan as a whole: an imaginative, eager, ambitious young man who finds himself on the road to fascism. Kiroku is in love with Michiko (Junko Asano), his landlord’s sweet-faced, piano-playing daughter, and the tug-of-war within him is accentuated by her constantly trying to find positive avenues for his energy. But, in the end, playing piano doesn’t hold a candle to bar brawls and street fights.
Fighting Elegy traces Kiroku’s steady descent into a world of violence, one that eventually gets him kicked out of his high school and banished to a rural area where he falls in with militaristic gangs that feed on a steady diet of aggression. At this point, the notion of sexuality is completely sublimated to violence, as his fellow gang members insist that chasing girls is for “sissies”; it’s a waste of precious energy that could be better spent fighting. This eventually leads to Kiroku’s becoming involved with radical right-wing ideologue Kita Ikki, a real-life historical figure who wrote fascist tracts and organized a military coup d’etat that resulted in the assassination of numerous Japanese leaders on February 26, 1936.
Of course, because the film was directed by Seijun Suzuki, the heady subject matter is approached with a sometimes broadly comic sensibility that adds discord to the historical weightiness. Suzuki’s theme is the absurdity of violence, which is central to his most well-known films (1963’s Youth of the Beast, 1967’s Branded to Kill, 2001’s Pistol Opera). The violence of the fight scenes in Fighting Elegy, which is expertly choreographed and filmed, is often tempered by the inclusion of cartoonish sound effects. The gang brawls are designed to look like wars, and their ridiculousness is underscored in one scene where a massive throw-down is interrupted by Kiroku’s father pretending to be a police officer. Suzuki also revels in the absurd myopia of the adolescent libido (embarrassing unexpected erections and all), showing the world through Kiroku’s overheated eyes (although he, like all the other adolescents in the film, is played by an actor who is clearly a decade or more too old for the part).
However, Fighting Elegy is not a typical Suzuki film, in that it is not a deconstructed genre piece inflated with hot stylized air and a wicked sense of perversion. Shot in austere black and white (primarily due to the limited budget), Fighting Elegy is one of Suzuki’s most restrained films, particularly considering the fact that it was released in 1966, a year before he was fired from the Nikkatsu studio for his increasingly outrageous films.
He does employ some of his signature tricks, including strange camera angles, associational editing, and a few visual flourishes like mobile split screens. There are also moments of almost rapturous beauty, particularly some of the final shots in which snow blankets the narrative. But, overall it is an atypically restrained work from Suzuki, who clearly had strong feelings about the film’s theme and its reflection of the missteps his country had taken 30 years earlier, the scars of which were still raw.
|Fighting Elegy Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||January 11, 2005|
|Fighting Elegy is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from a 35mm print struck from the original negative. The image may strike some as a bit soft, but since it is only one generation away from the best possible source material, one has to assume that this is the result of the original film stock and cinematography. Contrast is good, though not particularly strong at times. The image is definitely very clean, as digital restoration has done wonders in removing dirt, scratches, and other blemishes.|
|The original monaural soundtrack, transferred from the optical print track and digitally restored, sounds dated, but good. Some of the cheesy sound effects during the fight sequences are particularly amusing, as they should be.|
|The only included supplement is the film’s original theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection