Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 12 January 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
“FIGHTS… FIGHTS… THERE ARE FIGHTS EVERYWHERE!” announces Fighting Elegy’s trailer. The promise is essentially untrue. There are a few populated fights in the film, each of them scored in punches that land with an identical “Thwak!,” but they are ancillary to the other aspects that infuse a young, reluctant soldier’s hostility: the mistreatment he encounters at school, and the girl he garners a crush for. Set in a 1930s Japan, Fighting Elegy constructs a scenario in which fascism is bred and shared in a growing proportion of Japan’s youth.
The scenario is reminiscent of director Seijun Suzuki’s youth, and as such the film is distinguished by an air of nostalgia—even sympathy—that the tumultuous history does not imply. The film concludes with young soldiers marching towards Tokyo, waging a massive coup d’etat. Fighting Elegy depicts this reformation in its background, but favors the personal strife of its principal youth, Ikki. Instead of a summary generalization of the incident, we learn of it via Ikki’s microcosm: he is reprimanded at school and by his peers; his intense crush on a girl is a fallible trait in a man trained to fight. And his girl is a source of awkwardness: it encourages constant masturbation, and in many scenes Ikki is squirming to suppress an erection. Japan’s history (and eventual position as an Axis Power) is necessary to the film, perhaps, but Ikki’s personal life is the more formative influence.
Fighting Elegy is a notable ambition in comparison to many of Suzuki’s Nikkatsu pictures. He was a contract director for the very prolific Japanese studio, sometimes helming four pictures simultaneously. It is marketed in the same manner as Suzuki’s yakuza films (as the above trailer caption denotes), but whereas those contain underdeveloped, often silent characters, Fighting Elegy is atypical because of its primary characterization. It is not the Suzuki film I prefer (that would be the virtuosic Branded to Kill), but it is of note in a career so regularly built on generic material.