Fukasaku Kinji, Underworld Historiographer

A colleague reminded me the other day that an article I wrote on Fukasaku Kinji was no longer on the net. The piece, which I originally wrote for New Cinema From Japan News, Vol. 2 (January 2000), printed in conjunction with a Fukasaku retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival, had been slightly revised and put online at Asian Film Connections along with some of my other work. (It also appeared in Japanese in Eiga kantoku Fukasaku Kinji no kiseki [Kinema Junpo, 2003]). When that site went private (without telling me, I might add), all my articles there disappeared. My colleague's inquiry has inspired me to return this article to the Internet.

In Fukasaku Kinji's world, to begin a yakuza movie with the Bomb, as with Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi naki tatakai, 1973), is not only to create a symbol of the nihilistic, nearly apocalyptic realm of corrupt, internecine struggles that will ensue, but to fix a historical marker that delineates the core of much of his work and makes him one of cinema's unique historiographers. The Bomb did not simply designate the first realization of nuclear horror, it prompted the end of the war and thus, to many of Fukasaku's generation (he was born in 1930), the total collapse of all the values - authority, nation, honor, etc. - they had been force-fed in school. For them, the explosive leveling of Japanese buildings and institutions meant less the end of the world than the thrilling opportunity to act in total, anarchic freedom while starting from scratch.

That didn't last long, what with the recovery spurred by selling parts for the Korean War and the high economic growth of the 1960s. So even with all the Fukasaku films that begin with images of the immediate postwar, the narrative center is often the frustration over the loss of that moment of liberation. If the violent yakuza, unruly hoodlum, or corrupt cop is the symbolic object of Fukasaku's admiration of anarchic freedom, it is the gangster just out of jail, confronted with a world utterly transformed, who best embodies the realization that all those opportunities have been lost in the resurrection of Organization, Corporation, State, and Nation. Whereas the yakuza of Kato Tai or Yamashita Kosaku in the mainstream of 1960s Toei ninkyo (chivalric) yakuza films may fight modernized gangsters seemingly in order to defend traditional social ties (though that is sometimes debatable), Fukasaku's hoodlums reminisce about the past and lash out at the new - even when opposition is clearly futile - in order to defend a world with no social bonds other than those formed by the clash of bodies.

This temporal shift - one could even say temporal collision - between what was and what is, is important to Fukasaku's work not only because it resonates with the narrative clashes, but also because it echoes the centrality of writing history to his cinema. While he may be the precursor of a Miike Takashi in his apocalyptic nihilism and sympathy for Japan's social marginals, Fukasaku, unlike Miike with his presentation of an ahistorical postmodern mayhem, resolutely grounds his narratives in a more traditional historical opposition: between those who write history and those who do not.

In his early work like The Wolf, the Pig, and the Man (Okami to buta to ningen, 1964), conflict is still offered in the form of a present bearing different temporalities (here social classes). But the films from the late sixties begin to introduce into the image the markers of an official history relating the passage of time: newspapers, journalistic photography, police records, and the authoritative narrator. The freeze frames that punctuate his works approximate these discourses and often denote a moment of history officially told.

These discourses, however, are really not Fukasaku's own. Just as the "official record" in Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (Gunki hatameku shita ni, 1971) really hides more than it tells, the means of much historiography - words - such as with the inscription on Ichikawa Rikiya's grave in Graveyard of Honor (Jingi no hakaba, 1975), are misleading if you don't know the story behind them (a story we the audience do know). Battles without Honor and Humanity and Under the Flag of the Rising Sun are then powerful attempts to combat the dominant history of the modern era through focusing on the underworld events and people usually left unspoken.

Given that much about Sgt. Togashi and Rikiya remains ambiguous at the end, Fukasaku's history makes few pretensions about telling the Truth. One of the reasons for this is because this history is cinematic. That is, first, in the sense that these films reflect a part of postwar Japanese film history. Starting out in the gang cycle before the crystallization of the traditional ninkyo film at Toei, Fukasaku never fit well with that mainstream and thus became instrumental in its downfall, replacing chivalric duty and honor with, as epitomized by Graveyard, its complete lack. Having undermined the yakuza genre, however, Fukasaku in a sense had to leave it, and worked mostly in big budget entertainment after the 1970s.

Yet even in some of those films, the writing of a "cinematic" history remains central. If Fukasaku's history is not the words frozen onto the records or the still shots of the news photographer, it because he emphasizes the movement that escapes those means, a historical action expressed through a kinetic style defined by hand-held cameras, canting frames, speedy pans and zooms, and fast editing. One can say such cinematic action itself is Fukasaku's historiographic calligraphy.

In a film like Street Mobster (Gendai yakuza: hitokiri yota, 1972), these stylistic elements strongly approximate those of cinema vérité, but Fukasaku is not really a documentarist pursuing reality. The totally unfounded assertion in Shogun's Samurai (Yagyu ichizoku no inbo, 1976) that Tokugawa Iemitsu was beheaded soon after his assumption of the shogunate, or the audacious (yet not completely without foundation) combination of "Yotsuya Ghost Story" with "Tale of the Loyal 47 Ronin" in Crest of Betrayal (Chushingura gaiden: Yotsuya kaidan, 1994) are less assertions of truth against a false history than, like the ninja manga of Shirato Sanpei that were influential in the 1960s minus the Marxism, efforts to provide alternative myths to the official ones. Fukasaku's history is less concerned with facts than the violence, action, friendship, corruption, love, humor (often provided by Kaneko Nobuo), betrayal, and homoerotic beauty (Black Lizard [Kurotokage, 1968])--all the stuff of genre cinema--that are present in history but which have no means other than perhaps film to fully tell their tales. If Yagyu wails about the nightmare he has been confronted with at the end of Shogun's Samurai, it is because Fukasaku's chronicle has continually been using the most oneiric of media to give Japan the bad dreams it both dreads and craves about its own history.

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