Japan (1995) Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto
Boxing has often been referred to as the “noble art”, which raises questions about how punching someone in the face has any relation to nobility, aside from the Marquis of Queensberry devising the modern rules. Instead, it is a popular method of settling issues or long standing grudges outside of the ring, often with horrific consequences.
Yoshiharu Tsuda (Shinya Tsukamoto), a non-descript, downtrodden insurance salesman, is feeling the strain of his job and the bustle of living in Tokyo, but he tolerates it for the love of his fiancée Hizuru (Kahori Fujii), who notices his stresses. Whilst delivering some money to a boxing gym, Tsuda is reunited with his old school friend Takuji Kojima (Koji Tsukamoto), now a semi-professional boxer.
Kojima pays Tsuda a visit one day but only Hizuru is home. Kojima makes a pass at Hizuru which she rejects but when Tsuda finds out, he tries to have it out with Kojma, and is badly beaten up. Humiliated, Tsuda takes it out on Hizuru so she dumps him and moves in with Kojima, enraging Tsuda more. As he is still in love with Hizuru and wants to win her back, Tsuda starts training to face Kojima one more time.
Rocky this isn’t, so if you were expecting an underdog type story from Tokyo Fist then walk away now. Plot wise, this assumption might be valid but with Tsukamoto at the helm, any notion he would deliver a conventional sporting drama is like expecting Disney to make porn films. Instead, this is a kinetic, graphic, and darkly surreal tale of violence begetting violence in a city Tsukamoto accuses of destroying the human soul.
Such symbolism may not be so easily divined since Tsukamoto is a filmmaker not known for making it easy for the audience, but the opening montage of Tsuda running around in a perpetual sweat whilst everyone else meanders cool as ice, is a suggestion pressure is a primary factor in this story. Average salarymen going postal is not a new idea in film but it bears reminding whom we are dealing with here.
Throughout the film, Tsuda, Kojima, and Hizuru are shown standing still, completely at odds with the uniform mass of humanity going about their day and ignoring them. I can’t say if this is Tsukamoto saying lovers’ tiffs are insignificant as the rest of the world keeps moving, or if he is suggesting the general populace don’t care about what is happening in the microcosms. Actually, there is a lot about Tsukamoto’s works I often fail to understand, this film included, but at least there is a story here I can follow.
At first, Tsuda appears to be a milquetoast protagonist at the bottom of the corporate ladder. Hizuru may seem out of his league with her sharp, classy looks but immediately dispels this through her simpering towards him. When Kojima makes his move, Hizuru is quick to reject him but after cooing at Kojima’s muscles compared to Tsuda’s “soft baby skin”. Tsuda’s uncharacteristic rage when learning of Kojima’s actions sheds a new light on this meek man, now a cauldron of testosterone, ready to fight for Hizuru’s honour.
Except Tsuda blames Hizuru too and hereinafter is both rude and contrite to her in the same conversation in a vicious cycle of the bullied bullying someone weaker. In this case, Hizuru is not so weak and when Tsuda pulls this stunt on her birthday, it is the last straw for Hizuru, driving her into Kojima’s arms but not before she makes some gradual changes to her appearance to match what she thinks Kojima likes about her.
Sporting piercings, tattoos, and metal rods in her arms and legs (I guess Tsukamoto had to get his metal fixation in here somehow), Hizuru’s new look is presumably meant to be commensurate to the raw animalistic edge of the unpredictable Kojima, yet he turns out to be a bit of a wuss. Having barely won any fights, Kojima is the joke of his gym for his poor skills and with Hizuru proving to be scary, Kojima starts to get serious.
With his ever moving camera working overtime, the training sessions and fights are a blur of quick cut action, which look speeded up but aren’t due to the tight editing. As ever Tsukamoto gets in close with his subjects, making each flurry of punches and dusk and dives a head spinning reality for the audience, and if this were in 3D, we’d probably feel each blow landing too.
However, the violence, whilst grisly and graphic, is also very cartoony, clashing with the verisimilitude created by the manic POV camerawork. Huge lumps form on faces after a hard punch, blood spurts like a geyser, and in the first Tsuda/Kojima dust up, bodies fly through the air like a superhero flick. Even when Hizuru has a brutal fight with Tsuda, the exaggerated prosthetics of their deformed faces veer to the side of silliness, which is either to lessen the blow of male-on-female violence or to mock the futility of their fighting.
Coupled with an outré climax visualising the psychological and physical wounds of the three leads doing their damage in a crescendo of synchronised bloodletting, the message remains largely oblique. Interpretations will differ, but my reductive take is that in any dispute, nobody wins and everyone is hurt by the others’ actions, directly or indirectly. Either that or boxing really is a dangerous sport!
Leading by example, Tsukamoto gets stuck into his role as Tsuda as well as directing his quirky, offbeat style, whilst the commitment to the boxing training by him and younger brother Koji as Kojima is astounding. Kahori Fujii is ethereally enigmatic as Hizuru, less a prize in a duel, more like punishment for the winner.
Despite finding Tsukamoto hard work to get into most of the time, Tokyo Fist is a less dense opus but still idiosyncratic and maverick, and arguably one of the most brutal boxing films ever made.