The Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku is arguably best known in the West for Battle Royale (2000), his controversial depiction of civil unrest which re-imagined Lord of the Flies with high-tech weapons and Nintendo generation teenagers. However, he was also the director of sixty-five features, at once a commercially consistent ‘journeyman’ capable of working within numerous genres for Shochiku Studios, and also a serious social commentator with an acute awareness of the potential perils of post-war Japanese capitalism.
Blackmail is my Life (1968) follows the fortunes of a crew of hustlers who attempt to graduate from small-time extortion scams to taking down the yakuza and corrupt government officials. Although the film embraces the freewheeling spirit of Godard and Richard Lester, whilst also sharing stylistic similarities with the altogether more eccentric work of Seijun Suzuki, Fukasaku’s initially feverish depiction of youthful camaraderie in the age of new money belies a cautionary tone, or as its anti-hero puts it, ‘the prettier something looks on the outside, the more revolting it is on the inside’. This is also an apt description of the heroine of Black Rose Mansion (1969), in which the famed female impersonator Akihiro Miwa portrays a nightclub performer who becomes the star attraction of the titular gentleman’s club, only for her enigmatic presence to lead to tragedy when both her wealthy benefactor and his son fall under her spell. It is a rare excursion into gothic melodrama for the director, but he is not shackled by formal restrictions and indulges in a lurid nightmare sequence and a sitar-infused soundtrack. Less surreal and more socially relevant, If You Were Young: Rage (1970) concerns five low-level workers who pool their resources to purchase a truck and set up a delivery company, but the character flaws imbedded by their poor upbringing sabotage their plans for progression. Fukasaku’s social anger is palpable, yet each character is fully realised to avoid becoming a political mouth-piece, and the truck that they name Independence No. 1 serves as a symbol of the heavy price that can be paid for aspiring to economic freedom.
These films exhibit a vibrant aesthetic sensibility, one that maintains a cinematic coolness that never succumbs to camp or kitsch. Fukasaku frequently uses jump cuts, freeze-frames and colour-coded flashbacks to capture both a nation and a cinematic movement in transition, while scenes often erupt into moments of signature graphic violence, with each film featuring a protracted death, usually the result of a fatal knife wound. Although the influence of the French New Wave is evident, Fukasaku’s work is rarely as self-consciously detached as that of Godard or Truffaut; even the criminals of Blackmail is my Life develop a social conscience and recognise their own shortcomings, while If You Were Young: Rage employs the music of Taku Izumi as a stirring cry for the hopeless fate of the uneducated men who were left neglected by the economic boom. This box set will hopefully extend Western appreciation of the oeuvre of Fukasaku beyond his notorious cinematic swansong.