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Fighting Elegy: The Criterion Collection

A slightly insane commentary on Japan's once martial culture couched in a coming-of-age tale, Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy ("Kenka erejii," 1966) surrenders to the fervor of a wildly contentious moment in the country's history during which the seeds of imperialism would be sown and a male populace galvanized into coup d'état and conquest. Straying outside of the B-movie ghetto to adapt the first installment in a serious-minded two-part novel by Takashi Suzuki, Seijun was paired with the estimable and prolific Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba), whose script he rewrote significantly to better calibrate the narrative to fit his hyperactive aesthetic. The result is a visually audacious document of youthful rebellion buoyed by a playful tone masking a doozy of a last-second perception shift that throws into sinister relief everything that has come before. Until that reveal, the film tells the knockabout story of teenaged Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi), a timid, religious lad bullied by his peers and tortured by his lust for his host family's beautiful daughter, Michiko (Junko Asano). Both are morally ill influences on his nascent manhood; his schoolmates taunting him into savage brawls, and Michiko awakening his sexual desire, which his Catholic upbringing tells him to sublimate rather than outright relieve. Michiko offers to teach him how to play the piano as a means of assuagement, but her lesson only worsens his roiling carnal state — the clumsy plunking of the keys becoming hilariously symbolic of his raging hormones (culminating in one of the most bizarrely inventive masturbation sequences ever captured onscreen). Kiroku's preferred method of governing his unseemly needs is fighting, which is also frowned upon, but, damn it, it's either that or mortal sin. Kiroku is therefore driven to join a local gang, which hazes him so cruelly his best friend, a bad-ass mechanic named "Turtle" (Yusuke Kawazu), intercedes on his behalf, dishing out a one-man beating on his tormentors in the tight confines of a schoolroom that builds chaotically to a brilliantly improbable escape. (This sequence is a triumph of the kind of absurd action that, as film historian Donald Richie has noted, now dominates Japan's popular Anime genre). Eventually, Turtle and Kiroku get into serious enough trouble that they're forced to flee to different towns. Kiroku ends up in the rural Aizu prefecture, where he predictably runs afoul of yet another gang, which leads to more epic brawls. But through it all, Kiroku remains in contact with Michiko, the forbidden lust of his life, who, it turns out, may have represented his salvation from a life of endless warfare. The hypocritical (and, in some ways, homoerotic) preference for male-on-male violence over unmarried male-on-female sex is but one of the many cultural attitudes getting appropriately pummeled in this teeth-rattling satire. The successful melding of gratuitous violence and irreverent comedy makes Fighting Elegy feel at times like a Japanese precursor to The Wanderers, but, unlike Richard Price's autobiographic chronicle of rough-and-tumble youth, this film is an indictment, rather than a celebration of, unchecked machismo. One interesting aspect is the film's heavy evocation of strict Catholicism, which is not something one often sees in Japanese cinema (Kiroku's downward spiral into endless violence is hastened just as much by the tyranny of Catholic thought as by the manhood challenging patriarchal culture), while its frank depiction of human sexuality also sets it apart from the largely chaste samurai sagas which dominated during the early- to mid-1960s (Japan's cinematic swordsmen wouldn't explore their inner deviant until the Razor trilogy of the 1970s). All of these elements combine to make Fighting Elegy the most thematically complex work of Seijun's career, and, perhaps, the most definitive. For once, the posturing is thoughtful commentary rather than gleeful exploitation. The Criterion Collection presents Fighting Elegy in an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with crisp Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras are disappointingly scarce, although there is a lucid essay from film critic Tony Rayns and a short historical capsule providing background on the 1936 revolt that occurs on the film's periphery. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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