Thursday, September 25, 2014

FIGHTING ELEGY (1966) - Seijun Suzuki

Sometime during his four-movie-a-year (and mostly yakuza-driven) indentured servitude with Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki turned out these two uncharacteristically serious anti-military films based on novels. No doubt they were enriched significantly by his own wartime experiences. I had planned on skipping them, suspecting they might be lesser Seijun efforts (despite their Criterion Collection pedigree). I'm glad I didn't. There are multitudinous treasures to be found in both.

Prostitute is a story about a military prostitute (or "comfort woman") at a Japanese encampment who has the great misfortune to be the favored leisure lady of a sadistic local adjutant. Though she frequently fantasizes about ripping him to shreds-- literally, in a Michel Gondry-esque sequence that sees him as a floating paper doll torn in half--Harumi doesn't give into despair or drug abuse like some of her co-workers but rests her hopes in a love affair with his meek assistant, Mikami. They manage to keep their liaisons hush-hush until Mikami is captured by the Chinese. Then she prevents him from killing himself, apparently the expected Japanese custom in such a predicament.

After he's returned and court-martialed by his own troops and she's returned to the brothel, Harumi continues to fight the good fight with a force of will far superior to that of any of the guys in uniform. Suzuki has made a film about a comfort woman, true, but also a strong woman (definitely the strongest in any of his movies I've seen). It's too bad she attaches her future (and, literally, herself in a tragic climax) to a man who's her inferior in almost every sense.

Though Suzuki reverts to black and white (probably by budgetary decree), there is style here to burn, no Technicolor required. Sumptuous slow-slow motion sequences abound. Stark desert framings pop. Tumultuous tracking shots (like the one above) astonish.

"Oh, Michiko, I will not masturbate.
I fight to sublimate my desires."

Fighting Elegy, filmed a year later, definitely boasts its fair share of absurdist humor. Any movie about a teenager so desperate to resist the temptation to "flog the bishop" that he routinely engages in playground warfare (and, later, actual warfare) can't be but so poker-faced. There were a few scenes where I felt like I might be watching Seijun Suzuki's Stripes. Playing "Chopsticks" on a piano with your unzipped penis? Engaging in rapid-fire haiku to drown out the image of your naked girlfriend? Yes, Fighting Elegy features both.

Catholic military school cadet Kiroku's boner-suppressing antics and latent brutality reminded me a lot of another ultraviolent fascist-in-training to come several years later. I'm talking Kubrick's Alex DeLarge. Extreme sexual repression meets fervent militaristic motivator. The difference here is it's mostly self-imposed. Though Kiroku isn't forced by scientists to wear eye clamps while watching snuff films, his severely regimented schooling definitely has a blunting effect that backfires on his superiors/captors later on. Though the lifeblood of Elegy is scathing anti-war satire, Suzuki manages to innovate in other more visual ways. There's a great sequence in a school room where the cadets' call-and-response chant with their instructor reaches such a fever pitch that the screen itself begins to break apart, Suzuki eclipsing portions of the frame in time to the recitation. Speaking of barriers, there's the perfect close-up of Kiroku and his lady love puncturing a partition screen to touch hands before parting for good. Sadly, for this young pent-up soldier, it's the most "action" he's likely to see anytime soon, apart from the battlefield.

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