"Kamata" is the Tokyo neighborhood that's home to the mighty Toei studio, Fukasaku's base of operations for most of the 1970s and as such Japan's answer to Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Fall Guy isn't a Toei production; the studio is only playing itself and lending technical assistance to a Kodokawa production released by Shochiku. The movie deals with the making of a samurai film that's complicated by the rivalry of two Toei contract players, each with his own posse of cronies and hangers-on who get bit parts and stunt jobs in the picture. We focus on Ginshiro (Morio Kazama), who grows afraid that a younger star is getting more screen time, more close-ups, and more stuntmen to kill. He also faces an imminent scandal now that his mistress Konatsu (Keiko Matsuzaka) is pregnant. "Gin-chan" thinks he can still steal the film if the director actually shoots a scene in the script where he slays an enemy who falls down a flight of 39 steps -- but to the bloodthirsty director's chagrin, the studio is unwilling to take the risk of a stuntman dying from the tumble. "These are bad times to make movies," he complains, "The days of respecting humanity and rejecting violence." The injustice of it all drives Ginshiro to drunken despair.
There's a lot of slapstick early as Yasu strives to make an acceptable home for his new charge by taking every lucratively risky stunt he can. He gets to interact with such Toei stalwarts as Sonny Chiba and the now-globally respected character actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who was then Chiba's protege and a pretty-boy action hero. Despite her hatred of the situation Gin-chan has imposed on her, Konatsu can't help admiring Yasu's determination and his sense of commitment. But she remains torn between the stuntman and the father of her unborn child, who doesn't entirely want to leave her behind. Yasu feels strong loyalty to Gin-chan and strong obligation, as well as a genuine growing love, for Konatsu, a starlet he's secretly idolized for years -- a Dean poster long covered one of hers. But the film takes a more serious turn as Yasu's feelings for his mentor and his new wife are complicated by the infuriating feeling that, just as in the movie business, he's no more than a bit player in other people's drama. Fearing that Gin-chan's career is on the brink of ruin, Yasu volunteers to do the stair stunt despite Konatsu's insistence against it. Fukasaku slowly builds the suspense as conflicting feelings seethe in Yasu before the big stunt. If he seems subconsciously willing to sacrifice himself to reconcile Konatsu and Gin-chan, he also seems to increasingly resent both of them while realizing that the now heavily publicized stunt will give him a coveted moment in the spotlight that he'd like to extend and exploit as much as possible. And to add to the melodrama, Konatsu is likely to go into labor just as the cameras roll and Yasu ascends the fateful stairway....
It just occurred to me that one unlikely film Fall Guy resembles in its build-up to a death-defying if not death-inviting stunt is Max Ophuls's Lola Montes, but the resemblance pretty much ends there. There are also moments when Fukasaku's film reminds me more of Martin Scorsese's contemporary King of Comedy, not because of any specific plot points, but because of the almost Scorsesean intensity and ambition Mitsuru Hirata expresses in a star-making role in a film set in the world of entertainment. In more practical terms, Fall Guy does resemble The Stunt Man in the occasionally blatant unreality of scenes that supposedly show the reality of moviemaking. We hear obvious foley sound effects during the filming of fight scenes, for instance, while Sanada gets to make impossible leaps while Fukasaku maintains rather than exposes the illusions that enable him. The director, with writer Kohei Tsuka, arguably goes further than Rush to blur the lines between the illusion of reality and the reality of illusions. An extended sequence flows from Gin-chan's latest farewell to Konatsu on a soundstage where the incomplete stairway looms to what looks like a dream sequence of her wedding to Yasu on the same stairs, which spills into the street as the happy couple and friends dance their way up a fire escape to the bridal apartment -- but once the dream appears to be over the couple are in fact married. Was that the actual wedding? If not, it'll do as a stand-in. And if that doesn't make your head spin, then there's still the fourth wall to be breached before the film is done, and songs to be sung in praise of the fantastic power of cinema.
Mitsuru Hirata really elevates this film to a higher level with his all-out performance, combining slapstick buffoonery and realistic rage in the kind of mix you rarely saw after movies started talking. But I can't follow the apparent Japanese consensus that Fall Guy is Fukasaku's best film. There's too much overblown comic acting for my taste, with Morio Kazama the worst offender, and Fukasaku himself seems to be suppressing his personal style for this project. But while he never tilts the camera in his signature matter, he retains his knack for tightly-focused mayhem, especially during Hata's apartment-wrecking tantrum. He also does things I'm not accustomed to seeing him do, like that quasi-dream sequence. Fall Guy testifies to Fukasaku's range and his effectiveness as a cinematic storyteller, but just as John Ford's best film is most likely a western for most people, Fukasaku is still at his best for me when telling yakuza stories. The director's growing number of American fans should still check this out sometime just to get a better sense of the fullness of his career, and to see him at what his peers deemed the peak of his powers.