“Fighting Elegy” is a title somewhere between obscure and misleading. “Elegy to Violence” and “Natural-Born Fighter” are other titles under which Suzuki Seijun’s 1966 “Kenka erejii” has played in the English-speaking world. “Natural-Born Fighter” is totally inapt, since Kiroku (Takahashi Hideki) is not at all a natural, but has to be toughened and trained, and still has a sensitive side and is in love with Michiko (Asano Junko), a pianist of his own age who lives across the way from him.
The neo-fascist youth gangs eschew entanglements with women, and Kiroku gets in trouble with his gang-leader “Turtle” (Kawazu Yusuke) for pretending the she was his sister.
The gang demands systematic breaking of the rules of the school, including even the part that is training for the Imperial Army. Kiroku’s inspection with a phoenix and his name embroidered on the back of his tunic, barefoot, with trousers only reaching mid-calf is the most hilarious part of the movie.
The movie is supposed to be a satire about Japanese machismo and neo-fascism. I doubt that I would have figured that out on my own, because many Japanese movies involve degrees of obedience and madness that strike me (and, I daresay, other western viewers) as excessive. Plus the sappy romance seems to me more a sappy romance than a satire or parody signaling its comic intent.
One major battle between rival gangs is obviously an homage to “Yojimbo,” with Kiroku up above, watching what he instigated. (That battle has a sardonic ending.)
Suzuki’s yakuza (gangster) movies are ultraviolent and make little narrative sense (clearly one of the many Asian/Pacific influences on Tarrantino, who is something of a magpie of Asian/Pacific action movies). The violence in Kenka erejii” is supposed to be comic in part because deadly serious schoolboys who engage in it. The problem with this is one that afflicts many movies (eastern and western) that are supposed to be about students is that the actors are considerably older. This is particularly an obstacle here, because the boys are supposed to be middle school students. Takahashi could look shy and ardent, but was 20 (and the time frame of the movie runs from 1932 to 1936, at which point he is still in school).
The strange goings-on (resisting discipline to become part of a disciplined reactionary army overthrowing the government in 1936) are filmed from some very arty unusual angles. The weather changes frequently. Some of the scenes changes are also very abrupt. Some of the visual compositions are gorgeous. There is some brutal fighting carefully choreographed and shot.
Knowing that the movie was intended as a satire on the growing militarism of the 1930s, much of it seems a satire of the ethic of Mishima Yukio, who celebrated the misogynist fascist bonding of that era (his own youth) and attempted to revive it before his showy public suicide. This, however, may because I am more familiar with Mishima’s writings than with other works from or about the era.
Definitely, Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist makes a lot more sense to me as the portrait of a young man acquiescing to incipient fascism than “Kenka erejii.” I find particularly puzzling what befalls Michiko.
Oh yes, although there is no nudity, I don’t recall a movie in which the protagonist has so much difficulty hiding unwelcome erections. He also tells his diaries about struggling against masturbation. I have no idea if this is supposed to be taken as comic or sympathetic. Probably the latter, insofar as Kiroku is the young Suzuki (who was born in 1923).
In sum, though there are some impressive compositions and fights (the fights often having peculiar sound effects), I really don’t know what to make of the movie or how to rate it.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray