Usually the name Shin’ya Tsukamoto attached to any film is enough to warrant, at the very least, a four star rating. He makes films like nobody else, he makes films that you will never forget. Watching a Tsukamoto film is like catching a minor illness – you feel a bit sick for a short time, but you ultimately enjoy the time spent. Just like being laid up with flu, watching a Tsukamoto film is something that you wouldn’t like to do every day, and indeed couldn’t that often anyway, but you’re glad when it comes along. Third Window Films have re-released Tokyo Fist onto DVD and Blu-ray with a brand new set of special features. The features themselves aren’t that great – a mere interview with the director and a new UK trailer – but it’s still good to revisit yet another film in this director’s dark canon.
We’ve covered his first film Tetsuo (1989), its sequel Tetsuo II (1992), on this very site, if you’re interested in seeing the depths from which Tsukamoto rose to make Tokyo Fist, a relatively minor film in the Japanese director’s ouevre, but one that is still a fun watch. Not one you’d like to show the Tsukamoto-uninitiated, but then again, it’s difficult to know where to start with such a baffling filmography. Perhaps Kotoko (2011), his latest film, would serve as a nice little starter into the world of body insanity he serves up. Being mostly mental torment, Kotoko introduces the themes that Tsukamoto confronted earlier on in his career, without the viscerality of those films. You could say that Tokyo Fist shares some vague themes with Fight Club (1999), if you were really reaching for a vaguely Hollywood comparison. It deals with the pointlessness of urban rat race life and how sometimes people need to lash out in some way, to hurt themselves and others to feel like they’re alive again. Of course this is all filtered through Tsukamoto’s brand of visceral physicality, and harsh lighting. The grittiness of what he chooses to show us combined with the unpolished edit means that watching the film is like going a few rounds in a sparring session.
Tsukamoto himself plays Tsuda Yoshiharu, a Japanese salesman who, in the beginning of the film, is leading the typically dull life of a salary man. We don’t dwell too long on his actual work, as its just a jumping off point for what comes later on – fighting. Loads of fighting. While out on a sales call, Tsuda stumbles across his old high school friend Kojima (Koji Tsukamoto), who has taken up boxing. Kojima is a really bizarre character. Played by Tsukamoto’s real life brother – a fact that makes their fights all the more bizarre to behold, when you really think about it – he is portrayed as more machine than man. His body is honed to perfection, and he is deliberately presented to us as an intimidating ideal of a man, in an almost sexual way. He’s not even a character really, just a wall that it looks like Tsuda could never overcome. His role is opponent, antagonist. It doesn’t matter what his personality is, or even his name – he is just Tsuda’s opposite. Whatever Tsuda is, Kojima isn’t, and that’s it. When it transpires that Kojima came on to Tsuda’s fiancée Hizuru (Kahori Fujii), Tsuda confronts the man and gets beaten to a pulp in the process.
This is all complicated by the fact that Hizuru finds herself inexorably drawn to Kojima, in both an animalistic and inspiring way. She wants to have sex with him, and also actually be like him, be one with him. She wants to be him. This sets her apart from the usual roles for Japanese women in the cinema of the time – she’s flawed, sexual, powerful, intimidating. Tsukamoto writes women as people, not just a sexualised blob for the man to rub up against or bounce off (this is another reason why Kotoko is so great). She is drawn towards the violent animalistic Kojima, but it’s more about what he represents than anything he actually is. To her, he is the perfect form of manhood. She craves violence, and pain, more interested in piercing her own ears with a frankly huge (and phallic) needle. Even Kojima can’t watch that. Of course, it turns out that Hizuru’s relationship with Kojima, when it finally becomes something more, is just what Tsuda needs to push himself further. Ironically, the film hints that the increasingly pierced Hizuru, while pushing Tsuda towards ever higher physical peaks, may be draining Kojima. Of course he still dominates in the gym, but the influence that she holds over Kojima is enough to slightly throw him off his stride.
Tsukamoto also hints at a deeper theme in the film – the reconciliation of traditional masculinity with one’s inner femininity. This is most evident in the way Kojima and Tsuda instinctively react when confronted by Hizuru’s appearance after she starts training. Kojima’s first thought is to tell her that she is a freak, and eject her from his apartment by force. Tsuda takes a different route, telling her he finds her intimidating but still treating her with love and respect. In those scenes, Tsukamoto doesn’t say which is preferable, or even that it runs any deeper than Tsuda and Kojima being opposites, but it would seem that Tsukamoto thinks that Tsuda’s the real man here.
Tokyo Fist is a unique film. It’s really confusing in places, and if you’re entering this film thinking you’re going to be seeing relatable characters on screen, then forget about it. Tsukamoto’s early films don’t feature human characters, they show the adventures of hateful avatars of pure emotion, created to fulfill one role. Anger, hatred, suffering, pain, whatever. Just don’t expect to connect emotionally, unless you’re a psychopath. This is the filmic equivalent of power electronics, or black metal – a bleak, gaping hole. Nobody wins in the end, we’re all just dying blocks of hatred. It might not be the first to represent themes of the ongoing internal battle modern life vs. primitive animalism as a literal physical fight, and it won’t be the last, but it manages to investigate those ideas with enough imagination, originality, and insanity to make it worthwhile. It has interesting things to say about society, and does so with plenty of disgusting sound effects and disintegrating faces. If you want a truly primal cinematic experience, watch Tokyo Fist.