Friday, October 7, 2011


Seijun Suzuki's youth-in-revolt epic is a devil's brew of youth tropes that'll look familiar to American audiences, but may taste bitter together. One part tender romance, one part j.d. expose, one part ribald comedy almost in the American Pie mode -- this is a film in which the hero plays a piano with his organ -- this adaptation by Kaneto Shindo, a director in his own right, of a popular novel is also an exercise in tragic nostalgia. It's set in 1935, which would be like setting an American film in 1940 or anytime in the Vietnam era, and it seems to point to paths not taken by Japanese youth. One path leads to sex and love, but on top of all the peer pressure on young males to shun love for violence, Nanbu Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) is a Christian and thus inclined to view his yearning for Michiko (Junko Asano) as sinful. For his exceptional reason he's drawn to the same paramilitary gang life that attracts so many other boys and is probably the Japanese equivalent of American team sports. He develops a talent for the "mace," a barbed weapon he can swing and catch on an enemy's clothes or his face. He also develops a strong individualist streak in spite of his attempts to fit in, flaunting his personal logo in defiance of dress codes -- curiously, if not prophetically, it looks like a bald eagle rampant atop Mt. Fuji.

Kiroku acquits himself honorably in the abortive big rumble, but ends up transferred to another school in another community, where he upholds his old school fighting spirit against his new "monkey" classmates. He ends up leading them to victory against their crosstown rivals, but as he triumphs in student combat he loses in love. Michiko first refuses to prove her love by kissing the circle he draws in a letter, then informs him that she's putting herself in a nunnery because some physical issue prevents her from making love. As she barely escapes trampling by a highly symbolic formation of militants marching into a tunnel, Kiroku learns that one of his mentors is a leader of the 1936 coup attempt in Tokyo. The film closes with him en route to Tokyo, presumably to join the insurrection. The sequel that would follow him through the war with China was never made.

Like many non-American directors, Suzuki tries to synthesize a range of moods that would seem mutually exclusive in most U.S. films. He wants to be hilarious, sentimental, satirical, scandalous and sensational, and to wrap the whole package up as a historical tragedy. Doing so isn't as hard as some may imagine, and Suzuki's strong pictorial sense holds it all together. This is a late black-and-white film for him, and the monochrome cinematography by Kenji Hagiwara is nearly as attractive as the vivid color in so many other Suzuki films. The film abounds in romantic, almost poetic imagery, from the illuminated trees Kiroku and Michiko walk beneath to the poignant snow through which Michiko trudges at the end. It's also full of broadly comic stagings, especially in Kiroku's new school where his classmates torment the hapless "Professor Duck." Suzuki even plays with the frame in New Wave style in this scene, alternating rythmically between isolated shots of the humiliated teacher amid widescreen darkness and the students chanting their taunts across a screen from which the teacher has been cut. Of course, there's violence aplenty, though this is an exceptional Suzuki film in that the violence isn't lethal. On a tangental note, if the warlike conflicts of student gangs seem exaggerated here, my own research in American history shows that annual ritual combats between classes (usually freshmen and sophomores) in colleges were fairly common in the U.S. a century or so ago, and could get pretty brutal.

Working in black and white, Suzuki can't be accused of letting color do the work for him emotionally or symbolically, as sometimes seems to be the case, and as  a result Fighting Elegy may be his most pictorially assured as well as his most heartfelt film. None of his experiments or excesses undercut the emotional core of the story. If anything, he probably plays too much for pathos in the tunnel scene, which is punctuated rather heavily with a shot of Michiko's cross being trampled by the marching cadets. But you can understand his feelings as he restages his generation marching toward an abyss. That parts of the film are funny or outrageous only makes the finale more sad.  The tonal sprawl of this movie conveys the breadth of possibilities for youth to better underscore the horror of so much potential twisted and wasted. That may not be what everyone looks for in a youth movie, but to the extent that the label fits this film, Fighting Elegy is one of the best youth movies I've seen in some time.


Jon said...


Great review and I enjoy Suzuki as well, moreso his films Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Fighting Elegy is probably his best of the black and white films though. Great stuff!

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, I once had the good luck to find good Criterion copies of both those Suzukis in a used bookstore for about $5 apiece. They were more than worth it and made me a Suzuki fan. You can click on the Suzuki tag and see what I think of some other work of his. Thanks for writing.