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Seconds out
A UK region 2 DVD review of TOKYO FIST / TÔKYÔ-KEN by Slarek
 

Young, cheerless insurance salesman Tsuda shares a Tokyo apartment with his fiancé Hizuru. One day he bumps into his childhood friend Kojima, now a semi-professional boxer, who invites himself to Tsuda's home and, finding Kojima alone, attempts to seduce her. Initially she rejects his advances, but following an argument with Tsuda over just what happened here and a fight between the two men that Tsuda spectacularly loses, Hizuru moves in with the boxer. Humiliated by the beating and the loss of his girlfriend, Tsuda also takes up boxing, convinced he can eventually win Hizuru back.

All of which sounds like straightforward stuff, a familiar tale of troubled relationships and the rediscovery of self-esteem, and indeed in other hands it may well have been. But as directed by Tsukamoto Shinya, one of Japan's most ferociously creative yet (at least in the West) undervalued auteurs, this almost soap-like plot becomes the foundation for one of the director's most direct and extraordinary explorations of his favourite themes of obsession, humiliation, liberation and bodily destruction.

If you've never encountered a Tsukamoto film – and few fans of Outsider cinema can not have seen his astonishing debut feature Tetsuo (1988) – then try to imagine a marriage between David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and a bucket of amphetamine sulphate, coloured with a splash of Jan Svankmajer. The tone is set in the manic pre-credits sequence, as boxers frantically work out to the beat of a furious techno-rock soundtrack, and a fist is held aloft against a jolting cityscape and then punches into the camera through layers of meat and gristle. None of this is there purely for decoration – boxing, meat, and even the city itself play an important role in the story that follows.

Like the aforementioned American directors, Tsukamoto never tries to fool you into believing that you are watching a straightforward drama before pulling the narrative rug from beneath – his deliberately twitchy shooting and editing style creates a sense of a world one step away from reality from the moment the film begins. Tsukamoto's Tokyo is an unsettling place where office blocks seem to visibly radiate an oppressive force, one that has the power to crush the spirit of the ordinary salaryman, a potent metaphor in a society that still places a high value on the work ethic and conformity. Tsukamoto himself plays Tsuda as a man whose life is all routine and no spark, a joyless and downtrodden product of a corporate world. He and Hizuru spend their evenings in front of the TV, mindlessly watching old movies and failing to communicate on any meaningful level, but the arrival of Kojima (played by Tsukamoto's brother Kōji, a former boxer turned trainer) soon changes all that. At first playfully mischievous, he deliberately provokes a physical confrontation with Tsuda that as a professional boxer he knows full well he will win. It's a scene of vicious physicality and a turning point for the narrative and all three main characters – Tsuda is badly beaten and humiliated, Kojima is transformed into a screaming, out-of-control animal, and the incident awakens in Hizuru a hitherto unrealised fascination with physical violence.

From this point on the storyline is of secondary concern, as Tsukamoto embarks on a sometimes disturbing but often electrifying exploration of dark obsession and the corruption of the body, usually through violent means. If Kojima is the catalyst, the seeds have already been sown before his arrival – Tsuda's job and relationship are in a state of of stagnation, his father is withering away in hospital, and a chance encounter with the rotting, maggot-infested corpse of a cat triggers in him a response that goes beyond simple revulsion. Following the confrontation with Kojima, both Tsuda and Hizuru are gradually but drastically transformed: Tsuda trains ferociously to build himself into a destructive if undisciplined fighting machine, while Hizuru finds a release for her personal obsessions through a series of increasingly extreme and self-inflicted body piercings. But Tsuda is not a Japanese Rocky Balboa – his intentions, it is revealed, have as much to do with betrayal and self-loathing as revenge, and Tsuda's wild determination to hurt Kojima is balanced by a need to punish himself. Thus he is able to momentarily re-unite with Hizuru only by allowing her to beat his already bruised face into a swollen and bloodied mess.

The development of the main characters is also used to explore issues of identity and changing demands of gender roles, a theme that has particular resonance given the film's setting and country of origin. Tsuda is a mundane office worker whose suppressed warrior instincts are re-awakened by Kojima, and through boxing he re-discovers what he believes is the lost essence of his own manhood, a theme that was later explored (or perhaps, given the current Hollywood trend for borrowing from Eastern cinema, reworked) by David Fincher in Fight Club. However, where Fincher's film climaxes in a (re-) awakening of the self against a backdrop of society in disarray, Tsukamoto's characters explode in an orgy of rage-fueled self-annihilation – of the body, of the spirit, and in one case seemingly of their very existence. It's a breathtaking, cinematic knock-out punch from a film that, in typical Tsukamoto style, assaults its audience in a manner that is both supremely satisfying and genuinely exciting – as with Tsuda, the harder the blows fall, the greater the desire is to be hit.

sound and vision

I don't know about you, but there are certain things I see on the packaging of a DVD that prompt very specific expectations. They include the following: the words 'Special Edition' on the cover; the enclosure of the plastic DVD case in a printed cardboard sleeve; and the proclamation that the picture has been 'digitally remastered'. Manga's region 2 release of Tokyo Fist has the second and third of these features, but they do not, unfortunately, add up to the first. The glossy cardboard sleeve seems to have but one purpose: to dress up an essentially budget title as something more, and up the retail price accordingly.

The picture is correctly framed at 1.85:1 and, we are assured, 'digitally remastered'. I have come to the conclusion over the past couple of years that this is a term with no real meaning, or at least no specific one. It can be seen at its best in many of Criterion's releases, where restorations have been painstakingly carried out from original negatives or inter-positives, dust and dirt carefully removed, and scratches cleaned up – witness the glorious work done on Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, which although shot in 1958 looks on Criterion's disc better than most of last year's films looked on DVD. Elsewhere, though, I have witnessed some serious abuse of the term, although the distributors in question would doubtless argue that as this is the film's first UK DVD incarnation, then simply transferring the previously analogue material onto a digital format constitutes a form of 'digital mastering', and what's a 're-' between friends?

Manga's release of Tokyo Fist, unfortunately, falls into that second category. My first complaint is that the picture is not anamorphically enhanced, a simply unacceptable feature in the days when I can produce anamorphically enhanced DVDs on my own home-based editing suite. My second is that this 'digital remastering' was done not from a negative or even a Japanese film print, but the same UK print that was used for Manga's previous VHS release of the same, evidenced by the big, burned-in Courier font subtitles and the spattering of spelling, grammar and translation mistakes that were on the video release. In its favour are reasonably good colour reproduction and sharpness in the untinted scenes, but Tsukamoto uses a variety of colour effects throughout, which results in the picture quality taking a noticeable dip, and some of the darker scenes are grubby and lacking in shadow detail. Though a largely clean print, dust and dirt spots are sometimes visible.

The disc comes complete with Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 tracks, but don't let this mislead you into thinking any sort of sound remix has taken place – this is still a largely mono experience with no real separation of sound effects or music. Clarity is much better in 5.1 than in 2.0. track, but given how muffled and undynamic the Dolby 2.0 track is, that's faint praise indeed.

extra features

As I said, this is no special edition, and apart from the Manga Previews – which are advertising for their own product and do not count as special features in my book, though there is half an hour of them – there is only one extra, and that's a trailer, which runs for 38 seconds, is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and actually gives a nice flavour of the film's energetic insanity.

summary

In spite of the cult success of the Tetsuo films, the work of Tsukamoto Shinya remains largely unseen and unchampioned in the UK, which is a bloody tragedy given that his films are more inventive, more artistically thrilling and more dangerous than the work of most of his contemporaries, both in Japan and in the film world at large. In the years that have passed since he first unleashed Tetsuo on the world, he has stubbornly refused to sell out and make a straightforward commercial film, instead choosing to hone his distinctive style and continue, like fellow outsiders Cronenberg and Lynch, to pursue his own very particular obsessions through a medium he appears to have been born to experiment with. Tokyo Fist may have more clearly evident narrative than his first two films, but it still takes no prisoners, and as a body horror piece is up there with the very best of Cronenberg. The definitive DVD release of the film unfortunately remains a thing of dreams, given the weaknesses of the already available region 1 disk and the fact that Tsukamoto's back catalogue is so ill served on DVD at present. A real tragedy, as this is the very essence of cult cinema, and deserves the finest presentation that money can buy.

Tokyo Fist
Tôkyô-ken

Japan 1995
87 mins
director
Tsukamoto Shinya
starring
Fujii Kahori
Tsukamoto Shinya
Tsukamoto Kôji
Musaka Naomasa
Takenaka Naoto

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
distributor
Manga
release date
Out now
review posted
13 January 2005

related reviews
Tetsuo: the Iron Man / Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
[Blu-ray review]
Tokyo Fist
[Blu-ray review]
Bullet Ballet
[DVD review]
Bullet Ballet
[Blu-ray review]
Sōseiji
[Japanese DVD review]
A Snake of June [DVD review]
Vital
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Haze
[DVD review]
Kotoko
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See all of Slarek's reviews