UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films continue with their releasing of titles by Japanese filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto. His 1995 cult classic, Tokyo Fist, has been digitally restored from the film’s original negative, supervised and approved by the man himself.
Tokyo Fist represents the turning point from the macabre genre cinema that launched Tsukamoto’s career to films that are invariably described as being more ‘grounded’ and ‘mature’, a traditionally shaky prospect for many directors in this situation. However, the belligerent confidence of Tsukamoto’s vision for Tokyo Fist is such that not only is the evolution a success but that the film arguably remains his most viscerally compelling after nearly 20 years.
Tsukamoto plays Tsuda, a chronically fatigued insurance salesman who trundles around Tokyo’s bustling, high-rise metropolis in a state of near-catatonia, reciting his product pitches to equally disinterested customers. By chance he bumps into Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto – Shin’ya’s real-life younger brother), an old school friend who is now a semi-professional boxer. Kojima continues to insinuate himself in Tsuda’s home life and makes advances towards his fiancée Hizuru (Kaori Fujii). Aggravated by Tsuda’s increasing jealously and intrigued by Kojima’s physicality, Hizuru packs her bags, prompting Tsuda to start his own boxing training regime so that he can reassert his dominance.
Despite its shift away from genre, Tokyo Fist still adheres to the basic template of Tsukamoto’s earlier Tetsuo films. A weak salaryman loses his partner due to a third party complicating their precarious lifestyle, and both the salaryman and the antagonist undergo a process of transformation, with their own changes encouraging further changes in the other. Tsuda begins this process as a soft and innocuous man but gets increasingly more violent and focused; Kojima, on the other hand, starts as the aggressor but slowly slips into undisciplined cowardice. Once again, there is a corporeal aspect to these metamorphoses, but rather than metal erupting from the flesh, pulpy, larger-than-life bruises begin to cover the boxers’ faces as they square off against each other, or, in Tsuda’s case, the city itself. In one scene, he repeatedly slams his head into a concrete motorway support pillar in delirious submission. The results border on the comical (then again, the ridiculous macabre of Tetsuo is not without humour either), but these hyperbolic wounds strongly suggest the idea of violence as mutation, contorting the countenance of each character beyond recognition as rage takes hold. Tsukamoto would continue to ruminate on issues of rage and revenge in Bullet Ballet (1998), but in far starker and more stripped down manner.
Let’s not forget Fujii’s role in all this as the woman who plays the two men against each other. She embarks on her own process of transformation by modifying her body with tattoos, piercings and steel bars as an extension of her rebellion. It’s an interesting continuation of Tsukamoto’s metal fetishist character from Tetsuo, although the film introduces many nuances to the director’s canon, accomplishing an invigorating fusion of both old and new sensibilities.
What is perhaps most commendable about Tokyo Fist is that it reveals Tsukamoto’s growing knack for finding subtlety and emotional texture, all while retaining – or rather, revising – his trademark corybantic camerawork, quick pacing and impressionistic narrative structuring. The film expertly captures that sense of male jealousy and emasculated frustration that comes when losing to a romantic rival. This is partly due to the performances by Tsukamoto, proving him to be a legitimately decent (and quite underrated) screen presence, and his brother, Koji, a non-actor chosen for his real-life boxing experience (although the contribution of story co-creator Hisashi Saito should not be underestimated).
It is the personal nature of the production that allows the film to be as passionate and energetic as it is, coupled with Tsukamoto’s ability to stitch together various visual fragments that act as complementary, almost kaleidoscopic leitmotifs: the regular training montages; brief shots of both Tsuda and Kojima staring into the mirror, only for the proverbial abyss to stare back at them just as hard; and Tsuda’s need to consume a post-training energy drink from a vending machine, a crutch he requires less and less as his strength builds. The anger and intensity are both palpable and, later on, pummelling. Tokyo Fist is a viewing experience that will leave you exhausted, but in the best possible way.
Watch the trailer: