Fukasaku Kinji (1920-2003), famed for making ultra-violent yakuza movies (such as “Battle Royale” and the “Battles Without Honor or Humanity” series), surprised (pleasantly) audiences with a behind-the-scenes movie with an important female part in the 1982 “Kamata kôshinkyoku.” The title derives from the beginning of the Shochiku Studio theme song. The English-language title “Fall Guy” is not bad, though “Bit Player,” the designation the hapless Yasu (Hirata Mitsuru) uses in self-designation (in the English subtitles) would IMO have been better.
Yasu is not a stuntman. He is one of the lackeys in the entourage of Ginshiro (a way over-the-top narcissist played by Kazama Morio) who gets nonspeaking parts in Ginshiro’s movies. Mostly he dies onscreen and pantomimes it on demand offscreen or does whatever else Ginshiro wants.
Not without reason, the very hammy Ginshiro is concerned that his star is waning and that Tachibana (Harada Daijirô) is being promoted to replace him. Ginshiro feels that he cannot marry Konatsu (Matsuzaka Keiko) who is bearing his child and asks Yasu to marry her and give the child his name.
Yasu had worshipped Konatsu, who used to be a star herself. Under his James Dean poster, he was one of her. He is willing to be the legal father of the unborn child.
Ginshiro pays nothing for the support of the woman he impregnated and who loves him. To keep Yasu in his subordinate place, he forces him to watch as he more or less rapes Konatsu, who can’t resist Ginshiro.
To make extra money for his pregnant wife (-to-be), Yasu volunteers for stunts. As I already noted, he is a bit player, not a stuntman. He has no training in taking falls, but seeks them so he can support Konatsu and the baby she is carrying.
None of the professional stuntmen (none is shown in the movie) is willing to fall down 39 steps in a fight with Ginshiro, and without the big finish to the fight Ginshiro is worried that he will not be seen by audiences as the star of the (samurai) movie within the movie.
Both for the extra-high hazard pay and from devotion to Ginshiro, Yasu volunteers to take the fall. He is such a sap that he makes Ginshiro as large a beneficiary as Konatsu in the life insurance policy he takes out.
The movie is often farcical with exaggerated caricature of star narcissism and unreasonableness. At least I hope that the sadomasochistic relationship between star and entourage member is exaggerated! It does not differ in kind from the obedience and self-endangerment of low-level gangsters in Fukasaku Kinji’s yakuza movies, however. Indeed, the flunkies die for real on command of a gang leader or anticipating what the gang leader wants.
Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane points this out in a bonus feature that also explains the journey from novel to stage play to movie. He also explains the Japanese title and the oddness that after refusing to produce the movie Toei Studio permitted it to be made by Shochiky on its (often shown) Kyoto studio lot (where the original incident occurred) with some Toei staff utilized. In a booklet interview by Sadao, Fukasaku recalls that some of the Toei craftsmen who had been openly contemptuous of the movie while it was being shot were moved to tears when they saw the finished product.
Though I often winced at Yasu’s exploitation (and eagerness to be exploited) and at the narcissism of Ginshiro, I was moved by Matsuzaka Keiko’s performance and the resolve of her character to stand by her (substitute) man and to try to dissuade him from the very risky big fall. And after comedic postponements of shooting the climax, Ginshiro redeems himself by showing gratitude to Yasu.
There is also a trailer that shows practically nothing from the film (some outtakes).
The film swept the Japanese Academy awards, including best film, director, screenplay, music score, actress, actor, and supporting actor (Kazama). Hirata Mitsuru not only was named best actor but also won the newcomer of the year award. Kitasaka Kiyoshi’s cinematography was nominated, as were the lighting, art direction, and sound.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray