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In an essay published in 1981 in the Japanese film magazine Art Theater, Suzuki Seijun’s kid brother Kenji offered what still stands as one of the most illuminating comments on his brother’s cinema: “Seijun and I are completely different characters, but we do share one trait, and that’s to do with our sense of aesthetic values. […] Both he and I stopped absorbing influences from outside in our early twenties, and so both his films and my essays are still strongly marked by what we felt in our adolescence. We have now reached middle age, but the source of our thoughts is still the way we felt about things in our early twenties.”
Suzuki Seijun was forty-three years old when he made Fighting Elegy, his penultimate film for Nikkatsu, but it was—and remains—a wonderfully youthful movie. A subversively funny account of the making of a model fascist, it goes where no film before had gone in search of comic insights into the adolescent male mind. It’s set in the mid-1930s, at the precise moment when militarism consolidated its grip on the imagination of young Japanese men—a moment, therefore, that fuelled the country’s imperialist ambitions in East Asia and ultimately led to the Pacific War. To look back at that time from 1966 was to raise unresolved issues of nationalism and Japanese identity, issues still as relevant to many young people as to those of Suzuki’s generation who had been conscripted to fight.
The desires, ambitions, and frustrations of young people had been on Japan’s cultural agenda for at least a decade already. Crazed Fruit (1956, directed by Nakahira Ko) had launched the cycle of movies about delinquent, pleasure-seeking kids that made a star of Ishihara Yujiro, and Oshima Nagisa had given the genre a political spin in his debut feature A Town of Love and Hope (1959). But Japanese cinema in the mid-1960s was dominated by somber and earnest yakuza movies from the Toei company and yakuza-flavored period movies such as the Zatoichi series. The student riots in Shinjuku (celebrated by Oshima in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief) didn’t erupt until 1968, and the rise of a substantial counterculture (celebrated by Terayama Shuji in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets) followed two or three years later.
Until the company fired him and withdrew his films from distribution in 1967, Suzuki Seijun spent the 1960s making B-movies for Nikkatsu: low-budget genre quickies to be screened after the more prestigious main feature in the company’s theaters. Kanto Wanderer (1963) went out with Imamura Shohei’s The Insect Woman; Story of a Prostitute (1965) went out with Imamura’s Intentions of Murder. All of the projects were studio assignments, and they generally had a clear-cut genre identity: hard-boiled thrillers, comedies, war movies, yakuza morality tales, prostitution melodramas. Making three or four of them a year, Suzuki gradually asserted himself by finding ways to make them more “interesting.” This generally meant intensifying what was already there in the scripts: using boldly theatrical staging and lighting, showing action from eccentric angles, highlighting unexpected details, pushing the level of absurdist humor up a notch.
But Fighting Elegy stands apart from the rest of his Nikkatsu films, and it’s obvious that Suzuki engaged with the material at a much more personal level than usual. (Indeed, he used the title Fighting Elegy for his first book, published in 1970; it contained essays, poems, and the script for the film.) It was most likely Suzuki himself who pressed Nikkatsu to buy the film rights to the brand-new novel by the now-forgotten Suzuki Takashi (no relation), and it’s known that Suzuki also wanted to film the second half of the book; the sequel would have shown the protagonist Nanbu Kiroku joining the army and dying in battle in China. A script for part two was written by the “Guryu Hachiro” group (which included directors Sone Chusei and Yamatoya Atsushi, as well as Suzuki himself), but the project died when Nikkatsu fired Suzuki.
Nikkatsu’s only significant contribution to the film that did get made was to hire Shindo Kaneto to write the screenplay, doubtless because of his well-known leftist/antimilitarist sympathies. Shindo was an established writer-director with his own independent production company, known for such high-minded movies as The Island (1960). But he was also a jobbing writer-for-hire (he wrote, for example, the most left-wing movie in the Zatoichi series) and he was “hot” at the time because of the worldwide success of his Onibaba (1964). Suzuki, though, had no more respect for Shindo than for any of his other peers in the industry, and he felt completely free to change and add to the screenplay. Lead actor Takahashi Hideki later wrote that there were frequent and sudden changes to the dialogue and setups throughout production. Suzuki’s major additions included Kiroku’s fateful encounters with the right-wing ideologue Kita Ikki, and the scene showing the heroine Michiko brutalized by army troops jogging through the snow. The script published in the Fighting Elegy book was Suzuki’s, not Shindo’s.
The bulk of Suzuki’s film takes a broadly comic view of raging male hormones. Kiroku, boarding with a Catholic family in Yamaoka, develops a tumescent crush on his landlord’s piano-playing daughter Michiko. She reciprocates his feelings but tries to find ways to tame his baser instincts, most especially his enthusiasm for brawls and gang warfare. Kiroku discovers masturbation (at the piano keyboard!) as one outlet for his pent-up instincts, but even that cannot rival a good rumble. His penchant for violence is guided during his year in Yamaoka by a succession of father figures: his real father, who is remarkably indulgent, the garage mechanic Turtle, the school bully Takuan.
But when one act of insubordination too many forces him to flee to a rural backwater in Aizu Prefecture, he finds no authority figure worthy of his respect until he glimpses a mysterious stranger in the bar run by the sensual, haiku-writing Misa. He discovers only in the film’s closing scenes that this was Kita Ikki, author of a notorious book that called for a Nazi-style reconstruction of Japanese society and imperialist expansion into colonies overseas; the real-life Kita was executed in 1937 for inspiring the rebellion of fifteen hundred junior army officers, which led to the assassinations of leading politicians and industrialists on February 26 of the previous year. To play Kita, Suzuki chose the virtually unknown Nikkatsu contract actor Midorigawa Hiroshi; in the Fighting Elegy book, Suzuki wrote that he picked the actor for his “insane eyes.” The heavy snow seen in the film’s closing scenes deliberately evokes the night of February 26, 1936, when Tokyo was blanketed in snow.
Limited to black-and-white by Nikkatsu’s punitively low budget, Suzuki had no choice but to do without the kind of colorful visual flourishes that decorate his genre movies. The only such moment here is the bleached-white fantasy sequence in which Kiroku (still trying to bring his compulsive masturbation habit under control) imagines going outside for a quick brawl to keep himself focused while listening to Michiko’s piano practice. This visual restraint is matched by a generally functional editing grammar: Suzuki plays with the film language only when he’s satirizing the supposedly Spartan ethos of the men of Aizu Prefecture. (He cuts to pompous close-ups of speakers in the headmaster’s study every time that “Aizu spirit” is mentioned and masks alternating sides of the screen to make fun of a call-and-response drill in the classroom.) The cartoonlike simplicity of most of the imagery and editing befits the underlying seriousness of Suzuki’s purpose. This is, after all, an “elegy” for all the testosterone spilled in the Pacific War.
Suzuki is known to most people in Japan by his personal name, Seijun, a mark of respect and affection usually reserved for important literary figures. (Seijun is actually the name he adopted when he became a director in 1958; his parents named him Seitaro.) He’s the only film director given this distinction—nobody refers to Kurosawa as “Akira” or Ozu as “Yasujiro.” I got an insight into the reasons for his unique status when I asked a middle-aged Japanese friend about his memories of Fighting Elegy. “I saw it more than five times on first release,” he told me, “and it was one of the small number of films that persuaded me, as a seventeen-year-old country boy, to move to Tokyo and get involved with Japanese cinema.” See? This is a movie that actually changed lives.
Tony Rayns is a filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer with a special interest in East Asian cinemas. His films include the documentary The Jang Sun-Woo Variations.