FIGHTING ELEGY (DVD)

3.5 Stars
Year Released: 1966
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 86 minutes
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For some Asian film fans, Seijun Suzuki’s “Fighting Elegy” may either be seen as a welcome relief from his usual standard fare of turning the world upside down in a hallucinatory manner replete with crazy camerawork, or somewhat of a disappointment considering all that he had done before. For me, it was the first time encountering this Japanese director, and an experience that calls for a few repeat viewings at that. But for the first time, Seijun Suzuki’s work is an interesting mix, going for fights where the camera is not only an intricate part of the action (it never stands behind to look at what’s going on), but reflects the confusion, emotion, and adrenaline that colors the battles of these young men and the struggle in growing up.

Bizet, Okayama in 1935 is where we find Kiroku Nanbu (Hideki Takahashi), a tall morally upstanding youth who lives in a Catholic boardinghouse and attends a middle school priming its men for military service. At that boardinghouse, his feelings are jolted and tossed about in turmoil with Michiko (Junko Asado), the daughter of the landlord, and he sees it as adultery to even think about her, adultery to God. He pounds on his twinkie and two bits in order to stop thinking about Michiko in that way. Michiko feels the same way apparently and wants to get him back to his upstanding way, but Kiroku sees fighting as the outlet for those feelings, the only way to achieve any kind of perceived normalcy.

So yeah, growing up is a real bitch for this guy. Those hormones can really throw anyone off-balance at that age. And in a time where militarism is starting to rise slowly among the population, it provides for some other unavoidable problems. Fortunately, the problems provide a pleasing round of comedy and action, and comments on trying to grow into men, whereby fascism can weasel its way in and conflicted minds can get caught up in it. Using a variety of zooms, and editing to reflect the immediacy of the fights, being in that moment, Suzuki still allows for stylistic flourishes in there, a brief near off-camera blood spray and masturbation of a different sort. You can’t have youth growing up without that. Interestingly enough, with piano notes used for each rung of a ladder someone’s climbing early on in the film, it’s easily thought that the piano sequence uses that same method and maybe it is. Or it isn’t.

Having watched American films for so many years where the emotional climax where things look bad and usually turn good, it is a welcome relief to see that Japanese directors don’t take the easy way out on their characters. They do what’s necessary for the good of what they have created and don’t bother with test audiences or any of the junk that turns mainstream movies as bland as possible, where the characters are presented as better than anyone that exists in the universe. The way Suzuki has fashioned these characters, shows the deep care he has invested in them. His cinematography as well provides a quiet beauty to all that’s going on, especially in the calm before the battle between the guys from Kitakata and Aizu Wakamatsu. There’s a real serenity amidst the bamboo trees as the camera pans across, as well as the snow towards the end of the movie, a scene with so many thoughts, so much to consider when it comes to what’s going on in Tokyo by then and what’s happened to these people.

“Fighting Elegy” is Criterion’s 269th DVD release and they keep on with the traditions that have made them one of the most well-respected DVD labels in the industry. With great care and preservation toward the picture, as well as the knowledgeable essay by critic Tony Rayns, and a theatrical trailer that advertises more for the fights than anything else in this movie (The company Nikkatsu was probably hoping for more), it may be bare-bones by some account but at least the movie is here for all to see, understand, and learn from, especially those wanting a wider view of film history in other countries.



Posted on March 1, 2005 in Reviews by
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