06 June 2013

Kinji Fukasaku's Films of the 1960s and 1970s

Kinji Fukasaku joined the Toei Film Distribution Company in 1953, at the age of 23. During the 1950s, Japanese cinema enjoyed a tremendous growth, and by the latter half of the decade it revelled in a new golden age commensurate with that of the 1930s. The most important directors of the era can be divided into three groups: the pre-war masters Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Tomu Uchida; the young Turks Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita who emerged soon after the war; and a new generation, working in a wide variety of genres, including Yasuzo Masumura, Tai Kato, Kenji Misumi, Ko Nakahira, Tadashi Sawashima, Seijun Suzuki, Kihachi Okamoto, and Shohei Imamura. By the late 1950s, the Japanese film industry was dominated by six studios: Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, Toei, Shintoho, and Nikkatsu, and new talent seemed to burst out of every studio. Nagisa Oshima had made his first film in 1959. In 1960, Toei, the box-office leader, launched New Toei, a second production and distribution arm, and the following year, Kinji Fukasaku made his first film.

Unfortunately, the Japanese cinema-going audience had peaked in 1958, and the financial base of the studios began to erode. Shin Toho went bankrupt in 1961. The broader fortunes of the film industry followed this collapse, entering a decline deeply intertwined with Japan's leap from the chaotic post-war economy of the 1950s into the aggressive economic growth that characterised the 1960s. Japanese society and Japanese cinema were poised on the verge of a significant turning point. Fukasaku released his first major work in a watershed year for postwar Japan. Although Fukasaku made his debut through Toei, a major studio, his first four films were low-budget, featuring unknown actors. Shot in pairs, each was only 60 minutes long. The films were contemporary dramas--ersatz Westerns mimicking a genre pioneered by other studios--far removed from the historical Samurai genre that was Toei's mainstay. Indeed, throughout the 1950s, Toei had functioned as a virtual kingdom of historical drama and its dependence on samurai films persisted well into the early 1960s. In contrast, Fukasaku poured his youthful enthusiasm into action and Yakuza films. Thus he emerged as a filmmaker whose work fell outside the mainstream, a role he would maintain throughout the 1960s.

By the mid 1960s, Toei had shifted its emphasis to Yakuza films, set in prewar Japan, that decried Yakuza 'giri-ninjo,' the traditional underworld values that emphasised the importance of housing the competing constraints of social obligation and personal bonds. As this new genre flourished at Toei, Fukasaku turned to portrayals of contemporary Yakuza, writhing in the turmoil of the fast-changing postwar world. In his work of this period, we see Fukasaku leveraging his marginality to create films that seethe with a feverish anti-establishment energy. Fukasaku's films from the 1960s are rife with a deep antipathy for the establishment of Japan. The exhibit an intense obsession with the chaotic, human energy that swirled thought the burned-out landscape so ubiquitous in the immediate postwar era. The slums of Wolves, pigs, and men (Okami to buto to ningen, 1964) make this landscape concrete, while the ruins of Greed in broad daylight (Hakucho no buraikan, 1961) express it in metaphor. In The breakup (Kaisan shiki, 1967), also set in a slum, Fukasaku delineates the sharp contrast between the shacks on one side of a river and petrochemical complex on the other bank.


The 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the inauguration of the Bullet Train are emblematic of the tremendous economic growth that so completely transformed Japanese society in the 1960s. Fukasaku, show was an impressionably youth in the immediate aftermath of the war, observed Japan's metamorphosis throughout the transformation of its physical landscape, though in fact, the concrete details of everyday life had also changed dramatically. Fukasaku's obsessive exploration of the chaos of postwar ruins posed an unequivocal challenge to the trajectory of postwar Japanese society. His film are documents of dissent. Both The breakup and Japan organized crime boss (Nihon boryoku-dan: Kumicho, 1969) depict the conflict between those able to adapt to Japan's societal changes and those who can or will not. Many of his characters adamantly refuse to accept change, choosing mortal combat instead. A similar conflict drives Wolves, pigs, and men. The protagonist of The proud challenge (Hokori takaki chosen, 1962) is a journalist, struggling to expose secret arms shipments to Asia. In this film, Fukasaku compounds his dissent with a criticism of post-war Japanese democracy. His stance is deeply connected to the opposition movement of the late 1950s, galvanised against the re-ratification of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960 and which culminated in the university demonstrations that rocked Japan in the late 1960s.


The characters who now inhabit the burned-out rubble and slums of Fukasaku's filmic landscape are drawn from the underbelly of society. The gangs of loners in Greed in broad daylight and Gang alliance (Gyangu dome, 1963), and the punks of Call me blackmail! (aka Blackmail is my business, Kyokatsu koso saga jinsei, 1968), risk their lives in their desperate search for a place to call their own. Fukasaku's dissent against postwar Japan begins with these films, and persists well into the 1970s. If you were young (Kimi ga wakamono nara, 1970) portrays the dissolution of a youthful alliance; Sympathy for the underdog (Bakuto gaijin butai, 1971) reveals the chaos of the immediate aftermath of war in the landscape of Okinawa; Under the flag of the rising sun (Gunki hatameku moroni, 1972) hows its dissent against postwar progress from the bowels of a slum; the protagonist of Street mobster (Gendai yakuza: Hito-kiri yoga, 1972) is a metaphorical reincarnation of the wild punks who once thrashed against the rubble of defeat.


Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, many studio directors shared Fukasaku's seething anti-establishment energy. In addition to those already mentioned, Sado Nakajima, Junya Sato, Yukio Noda, and Shunya Ito at Toei; Toshiya Fujita, Yasuharu Hasebe, and Yukihiro Sawada at Nikkatsu; Kiyoshi Nishimura and Tsugunobu Kotani at Toho; Tokuzo Tanaka at Daiei; Azuma Morisaki and Yoichi Maeda at Shochiku employed violence, eroticism, and humour as their weapons. Their films were also related to Pink Films, produced by tiny independent production companies, which flourished after 1965.


After Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, Nikkatsu dug itself out of a similar crisis by shifting to the production of 'Roman Porn,' an erotic genre. These events exposed the financial instability that had plagued the industry since Shintoho's 1961 failure, and anticipated the disintegration of the studio system which had always dominated filmmaking in Japan. The shift away from a conventional studio system reflects the utter transformation of postwar Japanese society, the pervasive effects of widespread industrial pollution, the emergence of the militant Red Army Faction from the anti-establishment youth movement, and many other social phenomena. The films of Tatsumi Kumashiro, Masaru Konuma, Chusei Sone, and Noburo Tanaka emerge from the torrent of Roman Porn, spewed forth by a dying studio system. During this period, Fukasaku began work on his legendary series, Battles without honor and humanity (Jingi naki tatakai, 1973-76). Although Fukasaku made many Yakuza films, he was not especially concerned with gangsters or organised crime. Although the films in the Battle without honor and humanity series portray the bloody power-struggles among Hiroshima Yakuza, they simultaneously reveal the fundamental issues of postwar Japan. Ironically, the unexpected box office success of the first film in the series vaulted Fukasaku into the ranks of Toei's mainstream directors, though the distinction between mainstream and marginal directors was nearly irrelevant in a collapsing studio system.

Fukasaku continued to explore the abyss of the immediate postwar era in Graveyard of honor (Jingi no hakaba, 1975) and ventured further into the nether worlds of postwar history in Cops vs. thugs (Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku, 1975). As major studios continued to weaken in the 1980s, film producers were forced to draw on a wide variety of capital sources. Fukasaku expanded into new genres, creating science fiction, samurai and action films, literary melodramas and comedies. Although many of these films appear to be mass-market entertainments, Fukasaku's fundamental stance remains entirely unchanged. Regardless of genre, his film are marked by the sedative power of the action film, and by his unwavering commitment to his won brand of cinematic radicalism. Fukasaku continues to make films to this day. His undiluted, subversive energy and viewpoint continued to challenge postwar Japanese cinema and society.

[The foregoing was written by Yamane Sadao and originally published under the title 'A Tribute to Kinji Fukasaku' in 2000 as part of the catalogue of the 29th International Film Festival of Rotterdam. It has been slightly edited for reprinting on TV Multiversity. There's an interview with Fukasaku here (in English), a YouTube topic page with clips, interviews, and trailers here (including some of his more recent films), and his work has been discussed by the American film directors Quentin Tarantino and William Friedkin.]

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