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Fighting Elegy  [DVD]
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Seijun Suzuki's insightful look at Japan's undercurrent of militaristic violence. Suzuki takes a bleakly humorous look at the Japanese youth's tendency towards sadistic violence, positing, it seems, that it's no more than repressed sexuality. The protagonist, Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi), evolves from schoolyard bullyboy into a radical at the vortex of the socio-political revolution of the 1950s.
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Expression of fascism often puts the race before all through despotism that is exercised from a central source where total domination enforces the rules. In the event of resistance brutal force maintains the order and people quickly learn that punishment is the only means of motivation. In the Japanese community where the high school student Kiroku Nanbu (Hideki Takahashi) lives he is being fostered to in a strong nationalistic spirit where hostility toward strangers is overtly expressed. This helps to form Kiroku's identity, as heavy punitive regulations keep him in line.
The fascist theme has a very serious meaning, yet the middle-aged Seijun Suzuki's direction offers youthful illumination of the situation through Kiroku Nanbu who finds himself between fascist ideology and individual expressive freedom. Kiroku is torn between the young fascist males and a neighbor catholic girl Michiko (Junko Asano), and is fueled by his adolescently raging hormones. Through Kiroku's friends he ends up in gang fights that function as an outlet for his anger and trained dissatisfaction with the society. However, Michiko dislikes Kiroku violent behavior, as it goes against her moral upbringing and she tries to sway him to stop, as she shares the affectionate feelings that he has for her.
The adolescent maze of sexual discovery, love, and emotion confuses Kiroku and is even made more difficult through induced guilt. Kiroku who is coming of age does not really know what he wants, which makes him a very an easy target to have new ideas pushed onto him. The other young males in his cohort feed him misguided information in regards to love and affection and drives him deeper into sexual puzzlement. Inside Kiroku fantasizes about Michiko, as he teaches himself about masturbation and its reliving stimulation. However, guilt overcomes him and he is forced to repress his sexual feelings through guilt. Yet, these feelings need an outlet, as his passionate feelings manifest themselves through violence brought to him through his cohorts.
Amidst the adolescent confusion while trying to find oneself Kiroku has a number of people influencing him. His father, who is extremely relaxed, treats him like an adult, as a means to provide parental guidance. This is counter productive, as Kiroku has no idea what being an adult is like, which makes him look for more guidance from a mechanic named Turtle (Yusuke Kawazu). There are also other rough characters that become his guides through his brawling adolescence in Yamaoka before he is sent to the countryside.
Kiroku Arrives at a new school in a rural area where boys tend to treat newcomers with suspicious disrespect and bullying, which forces him to stay strong. The contempt of the hostility toward strangers further evolves the fascistic tendencies in the film, which seem to be even stronger on the countryside. The strength of the fascistic ideals is rooted in traditional pride, which Seijun makes fun of as the fascists only display their strength by attacking those who are evidently weak. Kiroku even points this out, as he turns into one of the leading fascist adolescents that gain power through display of fighting might.
As the story unfolds the audience can witness Kiroku's change and watch him become more confident. The confidence leads him to find some middle ground where he reaches out to Michiko while embracing the violent path that he treading. However, Michiko does not reply with the answer that he anticipates, which leads him further down on the raging road that he is now traveling.
Fighting Elegy is an amusing coming of age tale in the shadow of fascism where war and love struggle against one another. Seijun pushes the story to the limit through ironic symbolism where adolescents search for a worthy identity through bad role models. Despite the heavy dose of humor it is a remarkably powerful story that loosely depicts events that took place in Japan during 1936--events where the true characters started a rebellion that was squelched, Seijun depicts how some mislead youth could have been lead into the madness. This is enhanced through the camera work of the film, which is exceptional despite its low budget. The black and white film is another illustration of how they budgeted the finances of the film. In the end, Fighting Elegy offers a wild cinematic journey with slapstick, punches, and kicks, as emerging youth embrace fascism while desire to love struggles to overcome.
"Fighting Elegy" ("Kenka Erejii") is a sharp parody of Koha, taking a cynical look at the culture of boys in Japan, where the slogan "Boys be Ambitious!" can be heard shouted by mothers to their male children. All of the standards of a Koha flick are here; Kiroku Nanbu, the young upcoming tough with more spunk than ability. Turtle, an upper-student who becomes Kiroku's mentor in the ways of fighting. Michiko, a beautiful Catholic school girl who seeks to reveal Kiroku's soft side and lead him into love and marriage. Kiroku's inner battle between his lust for Michiko and his loyalty to Turtle is captured in the climatic line "I don't masturbate, I fight!"
Under Suzuki's directorial hand, this mockery of Koha is both hilarious and insightful. The military culture of WW II is one of the legacies of Koha, and "Fighting Elegy" takes place in a Japan on the brink of the Martial Law of 1935. Suzuki takes the fangs out of this ultimately destructive philosophy. One of his two non-Yakuza films (the other being "Story of a Prostitute"), it is nice to see Suzuki tackle this politically-charged topic so capably.
The Criterion Collection DVD for "Fighting Elegy" is fairly bare-bones, with no extra features other than two helpful essays, one on the film itself and one on Ikki Kita, founder of the militarization movement. Being a satire, it is impossible to truly appreciated "Fighting Elegy" without the necessary historical and political background that it dastardly mirrors and these essays go a long way towards filling in these missing pieces.