Wednesday, July 30, 2008

REVIEW: Tokyo Fist – Shinya Tsukamoto (1995)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

The older members of the Pow-Wow probably remember those Charles Atlas body building ads that appeared in comic books during the ‘70’s: the 130 lb. weakling goes to the beach with his girl only to have sand kicked in his face and his girl stolen away by some squared-jawed, muscled jerk. The weakling orders the Atlas body building program and x-amount of weeks later he’s all pecs and deltoids and abs strolling down the same beach and doles out the same humiliation he had to suffer through. The last panel shows him hand in hand with his sweetheart again. Now if you added some adultery, arterial spray, and some serious piercing and body modification to that scenario, well, you’d wonder whose hand was at work. Do you even have to ask? Shinya Tsukamoto of course! In 1995 he followed up the sequel to “Tetsuo the Iron Man” with his own extreme take on boxing, “Tokyo Fist”.

Once again Tsukamoto steps out from behind the camera and stars as Tsuda, the archetypal Japanese salaryman, a cog in the machine seemingly cut off from his own being by hours and hours of work. He’s married to polite and compliant Hizuru (Kaori Fujii), the dictionary definition of an ideal Japanese wife. Their life is happy, at least on the surface, at least until Tsuda’s brother, Kojima (played by Tsukamoto’s own real life brother, Kôji) shows up on the scene. As a pro boxer Kôji’s business is violence and even before the proverbial sand is kicked in Tsuda’s face we can already sense the wonder and jealousy with which he views his brother’s transformed body; but once Kojima seduces Hizuru, revealing that he just doesn’t excel at physical violence, but mental and emotional brutality as well, does Tsuda get himself to the gym and into training so he can wreak his revenge with his fists.

As I watched “Tokyo Fist” I couldn’t help but think of the writings of J.G. Ballard, and specifically his most famous novel “Crash”. Although the story starts out mirroring of those old Charles Atlas ads the similarity is soon shattered as the two brothers and Hiruzu become more and more obsessed with violence and pain as a way to confront their own bodies and their feelings of pleasure and pain; and just as in “Crash”, where a small group of people are sexually fixated on car crashes, the fetishistic expressions of violence by Hiruzu becomes more and more extreme. Unable to actively participate in the bloody fist fights between brothers she finds herself drawn more and more towards tattooing and body modification until she becomes a virtual human pin cushion riddled with metal.

All of the classic Tsukamoto hallmarks of body fascination/ horror are in place in “Tokyo Fist”, but so are many of his weaknesses. Tsukamoto is lauded for his DIY attitude to low budget filmmaking, but in his earlier films like “Tokyo Fist” you can see how just low budget his productions could be, and I couldn’t help but think of what this film would have looked had he waited until recently, now that his fame and budgets have grown, to tell this story. Regardless of these technical shortcomings I believe that “Tokyo Fist” is the most compact and forceful example of the Tsukamoto aesthetic since “Tetsuo the Iron Man”.

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