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Kinji Fukasaku, Director - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

June 2010

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It's interesting to see how Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku is perceived in the West: By the occasional trash-/cultmovie audience, he is seen as a man who has directed a handful of cheesy and campy science fiction flicks over the decades (Green Slime [1966], Uchu Kara no Messeji/Message from Space [1978], Fukkatsu no Hi/Virus [1980]) before out of nowhere delivering a spot-on antiutopian instant-cult masterpiece with Battle Royale (2000). More discerning audiences might also know him for his hard-hitting Yakuza films from the early-to-mid 1970's and/or for his samurai epics from the latter part of the 70's and 1980's, depending on their preferences.

All of these perceptions are of course true to a degree, yet they don't tell the full story ...

 

At times, Fukasaku was likened to iconic Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki - which is a bit far-fetched, since these men are known to have shot highly personal films all through their careers that had above all else arthouse appeal while Fukasaku's best films were certainly no strangers from arthouses all over the world, but he has also shot quite a heap of purely commercial features and a bit of forgettable trash throughout his career.

On the other hand, Fukasaku was also called the Japanese Steven Spielberg - which is inaccurate as well inasmuch as Spielberg might be a master artisan, but none of his films can be described as art, and all of them lack any personal vision, while Fukasaku's films tend to be deeply personal provided the studio lets him.

Perhaps the director Fukasaku is most readily comparable to is Francis Ford Coppola, not only because Fukasaku revolutionized the Japanese Yakuza genre around the same time Coppola changed American gangster cinema forever with the Godfather-movies, but also because like Coppola's, his filmography includes quite a few masterpieces but also a fair share of misfires and cinematic embarrassments - even if Fukasaku's failures were never as pretentious as Coppola's.

 

Though maybe it's a mistake to liken Fukasaku's movies to those of others to begin with and judge the man, his career and his films by their own merits - which I intend to do in the following ...

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Kinji Fukasaku was born in Mito, Japan in 1930, which meant that he was 11 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. In 1945, when the Allied Forces were bombarding Mito and the invasion was pretty much imminent, he worked at a war plant. Many wild stories are told about Fukasaku's life as a 15 year old in war-torn Japan, many of them exaggerations or fabrications probably, but without a doubt, wartime and the immediate post-war-era had a big influence on Fukasaku's personal views (especially his distrust in authority) evident in many of his more personal movies.

 

After the war, Kinji Fukasaku quickly developed an interest in cinema, which would eventually take over his formal education, while life on the streets of a destroyed Japan provided the experiences that later fuelled his best films.

In 1949, after graduating from high school, Fukasaku entered Nippon University, to study at Japan's first film department, but he switched to the literature department after one year, with the aim of becoming a screenwriter.

After graduating from university in 1953, Fukasaku quickly found work with the production company Toei - which would with interruptions remain his lifelong professional home - and became an assistant director with the studio's Tokyo branch in 1954. After that, it took Fukasaku seven more years to climb into the director's chair ...

 


 

Light-weight Action Fare - The Early Years

 

There are several points of interest about Kinji Fukasaku's first film, Furaibo Tantei: Akai Tani no Sangeki/Drifting Detective: Tragedy in the Red Valley (1961): 

  • It's above all else a hommage to US-American B-Western from the 1930's and 40's.
  • It stars Sonny Chiba at the very beginning of his career, the very man who would about a decade later become a superstar and who would work with Fukasaku time and again during his prolific career, up until Fukasaku's very last movie.
  • And Drifting Detective: Tragedy in the Red Valley already shows the assured hand of a skillful director who light-footedly combines expert camerawork with decent-to-fast pacing, and who knows how to keep the audience entertained.

This all might make the movie sound like a cult gem though, which in all honesty it isn't. It's basically just a light-weight action movie just like oh so many others that were churned out by other directors, at Toei, at other studios, in other countries, at the same time. However, the film at least was successful enough to grant it a sequel, Furaibo Tantei: Misaki o Wataru Kuroi Kaze/Drifting Detective 2 (1961), also directed by Fukasaku, and give the director a decent start in his new job - in fact, in 1961 alone, he made no less than five films, besides those mentioned above there were the crime comnedy Funky Hat no Kaidanji/Hepcat in a Funky Hat, its sequel Funky Hat no Kaidanji: Nisenman-en no Ude/Hepcat in a Funky Hat: The Case of the 2,000,000 Yen Arm, and the gangster flick Hakuchu no Buraikan/High Noon for Gangsters. Above all else, these films had in common that they were competently made but also pretty meaningless, just your typical bunch of genre movies.

 

The next few years, Fukasaku remained pretty much pigeonholed to (lightweight) action fare of the B-variety, turning out solid film after solid film, but no classic in any sense. Films from that era include Hokori Takaki Chosen/The Proud Challenge (1962), the entries into the Gang-series Gyangu tai G-Men/Gang vs G-Men (1962) and Gang Domei/Gang 7 (1963), Jakoman to Tetsu/Jakoman and Tetsu (1964), which became his first real success, the gangster flick Okami to Buta to Ningen/Wolves, Pigs and Men (1964), Odoshi (1966), and Kamikaze Yaro (1966). While these films were nothing too special though, they helped Fukasaku honing his skills and make himself a name as a dependable director, a reputation that eventually paid off with dividend ...

 


 

High Profile Projects and International Productions

 

It's interesting to note that a trio of films that showed Kinji Fukasaku breaking away from the action-director mold towards the late 1960's was not produced by his home studio Toei but by rival production company Shochiku. The films in question are


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  • the yakuza flick Kyokatsu Koro Waga Jinsei/Blackmail is My Life (1968), in which Fukasaku (who has made yakuza flicks before) tries to break away from the traditional formula for the first time,
  • Kuro Tokage/Black Lizard (1968), a labyrinthine, incredibly stylish and slightly perverse adaptation of a book by famed Japanese horror writer Edogawa Rampo and its stage adaptation by homosexual activist Yukio Mishima starring well-known transvestite Akihiro Miwa as the titular female masterthief,
  • and Kuro Bara no Yakata/Black Rose Mansion (1969), a weird piece of dark romance based on another play by Mishima, again with Akihiro Miwa in the lead, playing a woman everybody falls in love with.



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Toei in the meantime made significantly less interesting use for a director of Kinji Fukasaku's special talents, as during the same time the studio assigned him to direct three entries into the Gambler-series - Bakuto Kaisan-shiki/Gambler Closes Shop (1968), Bakuto Ikka/Gambler Family (1970) and Bakuto Gaijin Butai/Sympathy for the Underdog/Gamblers in Okinawa (1971), and Nihon Boryoku-dan: Kumicho/Japan Organized Crime Boss (1969), which was eventually also spun off into a series (without Fukasaku's further involvement though). These films were all rather traditional yakuza flicks, formulaic efforts that needed a good craftsman (which Fukasaku doubtlessly was) more than a man with real vision. But even in these films, especially Japan Organized Crime Boss, tries to think outside of genre limitations, and these films can be seen as precursors of films to come, when Fukasaku turned the genre onto its head. But more about this later.

 

Besides above series films, Toei at least put enough trust in Kinji Fukasaku to assign him to an international co-production, The Green Slime (1968), a science fiction movie set in a space station overrun by green slime creatures. This film starred a mostly American cast but was handled by a Japanese crew, and the outcome is largely forgettable, at least concerning Fukasaku's body of work - and yet it is one of his most popular films in the West, basically because it perfectly resembles the drive-in fodder churned out in Western countries, is full of silly effects (a Japanese speciality it seems), and is trashy enough in every aspect to totally please bad movie lovers. It's pretty much a movie you don't like, but like to watch ...

 


Very possibly, his competent handling of The Green Slime got Fukasaku the assignment to work on another inernational co-production, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970, Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku), a film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Basically though, this was Richard Fleischer's baby, who was in charge of all the key scenes, while Fukasaku merely handled the Japanese portions of the film.

Oringinally Akira Kurosawa was hired to shoot Fukasaku's scenes, but rumours have it he was fired from it due to gross overspending. The whole story has a weird ring to it though, and it rather seems that 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film, had hired Kurosawa to only play second fiddle to their own American director while Kurosawa tried to force their vision upon them no matter what. And you know what? Kurosawa was right in that affair, because why would one hire a director of Kurosawa's reputation in the international cinema world (which was pretty much in place by 1970) and then expect him to be little more than an adjutant or second unit director to an (doubtlessly inferior) American director. There was virtually nothing to win for Kurosawa in that story, was there?

Fukasaku on the other hand seems a perfect choice for a job like this, back in 1970 he was still a rising star who hadn't yet found his niche in the cinema world, and international coproductions like this one were perfect to build up his reputation.

(Personally, I almost tend to believe that the Hollywood producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! just wanted a Japanese director, and Akira Kurosawa was the only name that sprung into their minds, as back in the day, Japanese cinema was not as readily available in the West as it is today ...)

 

Away from international co-productions and away from Toei, Fukasaku's films got increasingly more personal:


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  • Kimi Ga Wakamono Nara/If You Were Young: Rage (1970) is a drama about five young men of modest social status who try to make it in post-occupation Japan - but the group is soon decimated to just one survivor, the others are broken by the challenges they haf to face. This film is a far cry from the genre fare Fukasaku has churned out the last decade, and is more than a little inspired by Italian neorealismo. But the film can also be seen as precursor of his later yakuza films, as many elements he would make mainstays of the genre are already in place here.
  • Gunki Hatameku Motoni/Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972) is pretty much Fukasaku's personal take on the Japanese in World War II (though it's based on a novel by Shoji Yuki, the film rights to which Fukasaku bought personally) - and it's a very bleak, disillusioned vision of what went on. Less of an expensive prestige movie, this is a much more honest (and much more interesting) film than Tora! Tora! Tora!.

 

Yakuza

 

Within only a few years, Kinji Fukasaku has made the transition from being a talented hack director to being an auteur also capable of turning out arthouse flicks. In that context it's almost ironic that the film that would finally secure him his place in Japanese movie history was a genre movie, part of a series (Modern Yakuza) launched without Fukasaku's involvement by someone else. 

But before I talk about the film in question though, I might explain a thing or two about Japanese yakuza cinema, a genre that flourished in the 1960's: Originally, the genre formula was based on values like honour and loyalty and traditions often played a large part in the films' narrations - which is why the yakuza flicks of the 1960's are collectively known as ninkyo eiga, chivalry films. And if you think this makes these yakuza films sound suspiciously like modern samurai flicks, you are absolutely right of course, as these films tended to idealize their heroes and romantisize what they were doing, just like samurai pictures did. The yakuza here (the good ones that is) were pretty much knights in shining armour, and that they found themselves on the wrong side of the law must have been a stupid mistake.

Yakuza flicks have been produced in Japan through the decades, but they really became a hit only in the 1960's, when the period settings of earlier flicks were traded in for more modern backdrops, thus hitting a nerve with younger audiences - so much so that pretty much all of the film that did reasonably well at the box office were soon made into series ...

 

Kinji Fukasaku had made quite a few ninkyo eigas in the 1960's, as mentioned above, mostly parts of series like the Gang- and the Gambler-series. However, he was never happy with the way these films glorified their gangster-(anti-)heroes, as growing up in war- and post-war-Japan had shown him the real, ugly face of gangsterdom and left him with the firm conviction that crime and the resulting violence are something dirty and can never be washed clean by some noble cause or other. However, Fukasaku was never one averse to showing violence on-screen, but he was always interested in also exposing the reason behind violent behaviour.

Among Fukasaku's early yakuza flicks, Japan Organized Crime Boss from 1969 is probably a good example for this, which is pretty much considered a transitional film. Sure, it's still basically a ninkyo eiga, as its hero, yakuza movie veteran Koji Tsuruta, follows a strict code of honour, but there's already treachery and betrayal left and right, yakuza who let others die for them out of comfort rather than anything else and who abuse the loyalty of others for their own ulterior motives, betraying them at the first possible moment. And when regular politicians come join the game, everything goes to hell ...

 


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In 1972, with Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota/Street Mobster/Modern Yakuza: Outlaw Killer - which, as mentioned above, nominally is nothing more than another chapter in an established series, Modern Yakuza -, Fukasaku went one step further than he did with Japan Organized Crime Boss, there are no more heroes here, no more knights in shining armour no more, only scumbags, streetpunks, and those who know how to control them to serve their own ulterior motives. The code of honour is not worth the paper it's written on, and the yakuza as a whole is portrayed as nothing but a detestable criminal organisation. Even the nominal hero of the film (Bunta Sugawara, who also had a small role in Japan Organized Crime Boss) is anything but a good guy and portrayed as a killer and rapist who sells innocent schoolgirls into prostitution early on. Fukasaku never asks us to side with him, just to identify with him so his story can be told.

Sugawara's streetpunk-style yakuza is a far cry from the noble gangster of the ninkyo eiga, a character Koji Tsuruta from Japan Organized Crime Boss used to portray countless times, but it's characters like his that made the genre that was already losing appeal by the early 1970's, attractive to contemporary audiences again - this and of course Fukasaku's directorial style: While yakuza flicks of the 1960's were often highly stylized to a point where they looked a bit artificial, Fukasaku went for stark realism, as he took the camera out to the streets to shoot at least portions of the film, used a lot of handheld camerawork in the more dynamic scenes, edited the film in an only seemingly chaotic way, made the outbursts of violence which are frequent throughout the movie as graphic as possible (without being gratuitous), and used documentary style narrative techniques (many freeze-frames, text inserts, off-screen narration) to suggest authencity. Apart from that, he made expert use of sudden changes in mood and pacing in this film to move the plot along. Now of course, none of these techniques were really new to cinema as such, and not even to Kinji Fukasaku's films, but they fell together quite so naturally only here.

 


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As opposed to the ninkyo eiga or chivalry films, Street Mobster established new breed of yakuza movies that was soon called jitsuroku eiga - true story movies - for its often stark realism. The lable true story though is often misleading, because since at least a few of the films might have been based on real events or were "ripped from today's headlines", they were hardly docudramas or anything that even claimed accuracy.

 

Street Mobster is now considered a seminal film in the development of yakuza cinema, but back in the day it was not a box office smash hit, it was too edgy and too nihilistic to hit it off with mainstream audiences, and was seen as little more than an episode in a series anyways, which is why Fukasaku soon was asked back to direct a sequel, Hito-kiri Yota: Kyoken San-kyodai/Street Mobster 2: Three Outlaw Brothers (1972), since the earlier film did at least well enough with the series' demographic. The second film did not match the earlier one in quality though ...

However, Toei-producer Koji Shundo - ironically a man who was not too fond of Fukasaku's earlier work - was quick to realize the studio had something good at their hands with Street Mobster, and he got Fukasaku his next assignment, Jingi Naki Tatakai/Battles Without Honour and Humanity/The Yakuza Papers Vol 1: Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), a film very similar in style to Street Mobster, and starring Bunta Sugawara in a similar role - that of a street punk turned yakuza -, but the fim was less nihilistic in atmosphere and more epic in approach. Because of its epic structure, its similar topic, and its time of release, Battles Without Honour and Humanity is often likened to Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), but apart from the fact that Battles Without Honour and Humanity did to the yakuza movie what The Godfather did to the mafia flick, the similarities are fleeting at best, and especially on a stylistic level, the films could hardly differ more from one another.

 

 

Battles Without Honour and Humanity became a huge hit with the audiences, and according to reports, it even saved its studio Toei from bankrupcy - and since the studio was never willing to give up on a winning horse, the film was soon spun off into the Yakuza Papers-series, running for five episodes in total, all again directed by Kinji Fukasaku, and taking the story from the immediate post-war years (when the original film was set) all the way to the 1970's. Turning Battles Without Honour and Humanity was of course a bit of a stretch, since the movie was pretty much self-contained, but Fukasaku's new-found enthusiasm for the yakuza genre, the genre's ability to carry Fukasaku's personal views, and let's not forget his dynamic directorial style somehow pulled off the series anyhow.

 


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The jitsuroku eiga however quickly became stale as a whole, simply because the market became over-saturated before too long - and a look at Fukasaku's filmography alone ably demonstrates this: Fukasaku directed all of the Yakuza Papers-movies from 1973 to 1974, then accepted an assignment to direct another series - very unimaginatively titled New Battles Without Honour and Humanity - directly thereafter, a series he left after three installments made from 1974 to 1976, in between which he also directed the yakuza-themed flicks Jingi no Hakaba/Graveyard of Honour (1975), Kenkai tai Soshiki Boryoku/Cops vs Thugs (1975) and Yakuza no Hakaba: Kuchinashi no Hana/Yakuza Graveyard/Yakuza Burial: Yasmine Flower (1976), all competently made genre flicks, but only Graveyard of Honour might be considered a masterpiece, as it marks the return to the darker, more nihilistic side of the jitsuroku eiga that Fukasaku had established in Street Mobster but now blew up to epic scale. Plus, it does no longer show the rise and fall of a yakuza, as most other genre movies still did, the hero (as portrayed by Tetsuya Watari) is a lowlife from the start, but during the film he only falls into a bottomless pit with ever increasing velocity. In a way, Graveyard of Honour seems to have finally succeeded in doing what Kinji Fukasaku has set out to do, to destroy, to annihilate the glamourous image of the yakuza.

 


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Many film historians like to regard Street Mobster and Graveyard of Honour as bookends of the jitsuroku eiga, simply because with these two movies, the genre seems to have come full circle - but actually, it survived a bit longer, and Fukasaku in fact stayed with it for two more years, his last full-blown yakuza-flick being Hokuriku Dairi Senso/Hokuriku Proxy War in 1977, an ok but not really great film.

 

The same year, Kinji Fukasaku also made Doberuman Deka/Detective Doberman/Doberman Cop, a rather light-hearted cop comedy based on a manga by Buronson that does feature a yakuza in a key role, but the tone of the film alone (like the fact that its lead character played by Sonny Chiba carries a piglet around) seems to be a perfect illustration of how far removed Fukasaku already felt from the yakuza genre in 1977.

 

It's interesting that Kinji Fukasaku should make a cop movie at the fade-out of his yakuza cycle, as cops or authorities in general never played a big part in his gangster films, and if they did, they were often as corrupt and as rotten as the yakuza themselves (see especially Cops vs Thugs and Yakuza Graveyard in that respect), and if politicians joined in the fun, they were the worst.

In that respect though, it should be noted that the cops in Detective Doberman are not much better. Sure, the hero is a cop, but he's eccentric as can be, and his colleagues can't stop sabotaging his work, even accuse him of murder, and the serialkiller our hero catches in the end is actually a cop as well.

 


 

A Director of All Genres

 

If you look at Kinji Fukasaku's career so far, it seems to have found its culmination in the yakuza film, not only in terms of box office success and critical acclaim but also in terms of style and recurring topics - and consequently, with the yakuza genre having gone out of breath, Fukasaku's career seems to have lost direction and purpose ... at least for a while.

 


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In 1978, Kinji Fukasaku for the first time turned his attention to this most Japanese of all genres, the samurai movie, a genre which he had so far successfully stayed clear of, and made Yagyu Ichizoku no Inbo/The Shogun's Samurai, an epic samurai story with Sonny Chiba in one of the lead roles, and support from Etsuko Shihomi, newcomer Hiroyuki Sanada and veteran Toshiro Mifune, among many others. The resulting film is a major disappointment though: While Fukasaku's (best) epics so far were characterized by their frantic style married to tense storytelling and very slim narrative structure despite their epic format, The Shogun's Samurai is pretty much the opposite: It's direction seems almost disappointingly stylized to the point of seeming artificial, the action is never really allowed to explode, and on a narrative level the film is over-convoluted to the point where one loses sight of the main plot, and a lack in proper pacing makes this one rather boring despite all of its action and violence.

 


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Ako-Jo Danzetsu/Swords of Vengeance: The Fall of Ako Castle (1978) is another stab at samurai cinema, this time an adaption of the popular Japanese Chushingura-legend - also known as the Legend of the 47 Ronin -, but as The Shogun's Samurai, this film turns out to be a disappointment, an overlong (almost 160 minutes) and overconvoluted film that frequently seems to lose its main storyline in the course of the proceedings.

 


Uchu Kara no Messeji/Message from Space (1978) on the other hand is a total different ballgame, a light-hearted science fiction movie, clearly inspired by the original Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) - and you know what, the film is actually good, harmless fun, a space opera with a fairytale basic plot and lots of spacefights, monsters, bizarre villains and the like. That said, the film is also childish and a bit silly. Sure, it's something you want to watch on a lazy afternoon and/or with a few beers and mates, but it's a long haul from Fukasaku's last masterpiece Graveyard of Honour from only three years ago.

 




As if to make up for the slightly goofy Message from Space, Kinji Fukasaku returned to the science fiction genre in 1980 with Fukkatsu no Hi/Virus/The End/Day of Resurrection. This time, Fukasaku was dead serious about his subject - the end of the world thanks to a nuclear world war -, put the whole thing on an epic scale, and had a large international cast at hand to hammer his point home. Sure, Message from Space had quite a few actors from the West as well, but this one had among others Glenn Ford, Robert Vaughn, Henry Silva, Chuck Connors, Edward James Olmos, Bo Svenson and the ubiquitous Olivia Hussey and George Kennedy plus Sonny Chiba to hammer home its point. Unfortunately, the point this film is trying to make - nuclear war is bad - is not all that original, and its many narrative threads only distract from it while there is almost no main narrative, which is only proven by the fact that there are countless different edits of the film out there, many dropping quite a bunch of narrative threads altogether to make it tighter - with only limited success. In the end, Virus, an ambitious project judging from its premise, resembles production line Hollywood disaster movies more than anything else.

 

 


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In all, Kinji Fukasaku's career seems to have been all over the place genre-wise in the 1980's and early 90's, he made among other things more samurai movies (Makai Tensho/Samurai Reincarnation [1981], Hissatsu 4: Urami Harashimasu/Sure Death: Revenge/Sure-Fire Death 4: We Will Avenge You [1987]), coming-of-age dramas (Dotonborigawa/Lovers Lost [1982]), musicals (Shanghai Bansukingu/Shanghai Rhapsody [1984]), literary adaptations (Kataku no Hito/House on Fire [1986]), romances (Hana no Ran/The Rage of Love [1988]) and high octane action flicks (Itsuka Giragirasuruhi/Triple Cross/Double Cross [1992]). He even returned to the Chushingura once more, to turn it into a ghost story, with Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Kaidan/Crest of Betrayal (1994) - to less than great results though.

 


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Of some interest out of all the films Fukasaku made during that era might be the samurai/fantasy flick Satomi Hakken-den/Legend of the Eight Samurai - not because it was such a great film though. In fact, the film is competently made and largely entertaining, but at the same time, its story is on the feeble side, and its characters are two-dimensional at best. But while its narrative structure and cast of characters might not be ideal for a movie in any way, they are virtual blueprints for adventure videogames, which in 1983 were still a thing of the future - but anyway, when watching Legend of the Eight Samurai you feel like you're seeing a videogame unfolding before you ...

 


In 1982 though, something big happened in Kinji Fukasaku's career, as he made his first multiple award-winning movie, Kamata Koshin-Kyoku/Fall Guy - and surprisingly it's a romantic comedy about the rocky relationship of a bitplayer turned stuntman and a woman impregnated by his best friend and mentor. Sure, the film gives loving insight into the art of action-filmmaking, but it's hardly on par with the masterpieces Fukasaku has made especially in the 1970's. If anything, Fall Guy is a cute but decidedly harmless film, and hardly one of the better ones in Fukasaku's oeuvre.

 


 

Fade-out with a Highlight

 


During the 1960's, 70's and 80's, Kinji Fukasaku was a powerhouse concerning his directorial output, but he slowed down significantly in the 1990's - and why wouldn't he, having passed his 60th birthday. By the mid-1990's, he worked primarily for television, and everything already indicated he would want to go out with a whisper - when out of nowhere he made his best film in approximately two decades, Omocha/The Geisha House (1999), a very engaging look at the life of geishas at a time (1958) when prostitution was about to be outlawed, a film that managed to take a level-headed yet humane look at geishadom as such without resorting to the typical use of clichées, and it manages to take the side of the geishas without in the least blocking out the darker sides of their profession or idealizing them. A very elegant yet far from glossy directorial job and very fluent (cinematical) storytelling make this a great film when it could have been an ugly piece of kitsch or a forgettable piece of erotica.

 


Flix.com

As good as The Geisha House might have been, it did little to prepare the world for what would remain Kinji Fukasaku's ultimate achievement, Battle Royale (2000), an extremely dynamic action movie that behind all the explosive onscreen goings-on also works as a satire on the generation gap gone wild - with then 70 year-old Kinji Fukasaku taking the side of the youngsters

In a way, the film about a school class being shipped to an island and forced to kill each other as part of a gouvernment program trying to reduce youth violence, is the epitomy of anti-utopian science fiction, and it also picks up many motives of Fukasaku's earlier movies, like his deep distrust towards authority, his refusal to glorify violence even in the context of an action movie, and his undisguised anti-war statements. Having long been an acknowledged master of the cinematic arts in his come country Japan, Battle Royale finally brought Kinji Fukasaku international acclaim, and it became a deserved instant cult hit ...

 

Maybe, Kinji Fukasaku should have ended his career on such a high note, after all, at age 70 he was legally fit for retirement, but he was also a director out of passion, and thus in 2002, he directed Clock Tower 3 - which was not a movie at all but a videogame. And this at least kind of makes sense bearing in mind that Legend of the Eight Samurai from almost 20 years earlier felt like the blueprint of adventure videogames in a time when these were still a thing of the future.

 


Flix.com


Then, in 2003, Kinji Fukasaku made a film he really shouldn't have made, and in more ways than one ...

The movie in question is Battle Royale 2 (2003) - point is, if there ever was a movie in Kinji Fukasaku's filmography that did not need a sequel, it was Battle Royale, because despite of the film's great outcome, it had a very narrowly defined basic narrative structure, there wasn't anything here to build upon so the sequel just had to turn into a rehash of the first movie. On top of that, the first Battle Royale had already perfectly made its point, so there was no real reason to reinforce/repeat it.

But there was another, far more serious reason why Kinji Fukasaku maybe should not have made the film: Before starting production, Fukasaku was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and his doctors adviced against working on another movie - but Fukasaku was way too much a filmdirector in his blood to listen to their advice, so he went ahead anyhow ... and died during production - according to some reports after he shot merely one single scene. The film was then finished by his son Kenta Fukasaku, who had already been his dad's assistant director on The Geisha House, had handled the second unit on the original Battle:  Royale, and had written the scripts for both Battle Royale and Battle Royale 2.

Battle Royale 2, I'm afraid to say, is a major disappointment, though not an unexpected one, and neither the swan song Kinji Fukasaku would have deserved, nor a good start into the directing career of Kenta Fukasaku - but young Kenta soon shook the shadow of his dad and made himself a name as a director of ironic over-the-top genre flicks like Sukeban Deka: Kodo Nemu = Asamiya Saki/Yo-Yo Girl Cop (2006) and XX (Ekuso Kuroso): Makyo Densetsu/X-Cross (2007), while dad Kinji had left way too much of a cinematic heritage for this film to affect his reputation anymore. The film still became a success internationally, but mainly due to the power of the first movie.

 

It's interesting to note here that both Battle Royale and Battle Royale 2 featured Takeshi Kitano and were the only two collaborations between Fukasaku and Kitano - and yet, Kinji Fukasaku was originally assigned to direct Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuko/Violent Cop (1989), Kitano's international breakthrough-movie. Because of scheduling conflicts, Fukasaku had to bail out, forcing Kitano himself onto the director's chair - fortunately I might add, because while I'm sure Fukasaku would have made Violent Cop into a good film as well, Kitano would probably never have become one of the leading and most entertaining directors of world/arthouse cinema without having been pushed into directing Violent Cop. And yet, Violent Cop does pay hommage to Fukasaku around pretty much every corner, from the authentic street settings to the explosive and often seemingly chaotic action sequences to the sudden changes in mood and the like ... and what better way to acknowledge a director's place in cinematic history than to be hommaged in a film by one of the next generation's key arthouse directors?

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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