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Though his oeuvre spans four decades and some 60 films, the alarmingly versatile Kinji Fukasaku remains something of a nonentity in art-house circles. Moviegoers outside his native Japan, if they know him at all, most likely recognize him as the hired hand behind deadweight international coproductions: Tora! Tora! Tora! (he was a last-minute replacement for Akira Kurosawa on the Japanese portions); Ed Wood-caliber sci-fi like The Green Slime and Message From Space; the outrageously morbid Sonny Chiba-Chuck Connors disaster flick Virus (in which the world is first decimated by lethal bugs, then blown up by nuclear weapons). At home, however, with his formidable box-office record and long-standing reputation as a genre insurrectionary in journeyman garb, Fukasaku is perhaps the most revered of living directors—not least among younger counterparts weaned on his splatterific pulp. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Miike Takashi are two avowed fans.)
Born in 1930 (he worked in World War II arms factories as a young boy), Fukasaku began his film career at Toei, one of the big five in Japan’s regimented studio system. Cranking out one abrasive crime movie after another, he swiftly distinguished himself with an overwrought, bruising style. Working primarily in handheld CinemaScope (and abetted by a welter of whiplash camera motions, skewed angles, freeze-frames, still inserts, and scrambled film stocks), Fukasaku takes particular relish in the choreography of mob scenes—setting loose swarms of glowering thugs, jostling in for close-ups as the punches fly. There’s a flamboyantly cheesy dimension to the bloodshed (brawls typically end with a lurid spray of vermilion gore, or with a severed limb sailing across the frame) but surprisingly little ironic distance. A juggernaut of nihilist rage who means to sicken more than stimulate, Fukasaku drains criminal netherworlds of romance, crushes codes of honor under foot, nullifies distinctions between good and evil. As his first local retro (jointly presented at BAM and the Screening Room) amply demonstrates, the director’s best films are acid baths of fury and despair, always on the verge of auto-combustion.
Under the Fluttering Military Flag (1972) is one of Fukasaku’s angriest and most explicit explorations of his great theme: postwar trauma and warp-speed transformations in Japanese society. Adopting an investigative-flashback structure, the film recounts the efforts of a war widow to clear the name of her husband, who was executed in New Guinea, supposedly for desertion. More often, though, Fukasaku expressed his frustrations in yakuza-flick terms. Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973, to be introduced by Quentin Tarantino at the Screening Room July 6) is an emblematic film—a convoluted, overpopulated diagram of escalating gang warfare in which fights seem to break out at two-minute intervals. Every death is annotated with a burst of text and accompanied by a dramatic trumpet flourish on the soundtrack. Fukasaku went on to make no fewer than four sequels (and later a few more in the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity series). Diminishing returns certainly apply (many of Fukasaku’s yakuza movies are indistinguishable on first viewing), but the films viscerally fold in on themselves, incorporating the director’s/viewer’s mounting fatigue and disgust. The Battles movies lead, with cruelly impeccable logic, to Graveyard of Honor and Humanity (1975), a headlong plunge into the abyss. At a critical moment, the antihero—bottomed out, pumped full of smack—fishes out a shard of bone from his late wife’s ashes and starts crunching loudly on it.
Fukasaku’s biggest international cult success, Black Lizard (1968), is one of his least characteristic works—revolving around a fever-dream danse macabre between a jewel thief (transgendered singer-actor Akihiro Maruyama) and a pensive detective, who carry out their cat-and-mouse flirtation in a series of solemn, swooningly florid bons mots. The retro also includes the director’s first feature, High Noon for Gangsters (1961), a who’s-screwing-who (in both senses) heist thriller, and his most recent, Battle Royale (at BAM only, July 6). A huge hit and scandal in Japan last winter and a belated, dystopian follow-up to Fukasaku’s 1970 youth flick, If You Were Young: Rage (sadly not in the series), the film imagines a near-future Japan that responds to delinquency by requiring high school kids to participate in hand-to-hand deathmatches. They’re dispatched to an island, assigned one weapon each, and—as a taskmaster (in this case, Takeshi Kitano in a running suit) prods them on—left to slug it out until only one remains. Fukasaku orchestrates the mayhem with a button-pushing, Nintendo-fried glee: The class of 42 boys and girls rapidly depletes, and not a single death takes place offscreen. Sardonic and scattered as Battle Royale may be, the 71-year-old director eventually shows his hand by concluding the film with a grimly urgent entreaty: “Run!”