Kinji Fukasaku – the legendary Japanese director best-known over here for heavily influencing Tarantino and Scorsese (and for being criminally ripped-off by The Hunger Games folks) – died ten years ago today. Below is a piece I wrote about him in 2001, shortly after the release of his final film Battle Royale.
When Kinji Fukasaku was 15, the war his Japan had been waging suddenly ended in the detonation of an atomic bomb. The young Fukasaku, who had been working at an armaments factory – his time mostly spent cleaning up the corpses of his co-workers killed every day in Allied bombings – watched as his proud country collapsed into chaos and economic ruin. Years later, Fukasaku would translate those firsthand childhood experiences of Japan’s disintegration into a catalog of vibrant and blisteringly angry films that would make him that country’s most successful director. Revered by Japanese critics alongside Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, and idolized by filmmakers like Takeshi Kitano and Quentin Tarantino, Fukasaku is largely unknown here in America, and only one of his films (Black Lizard – his least characteristic) is widely available for home viewing.
Fukasaku is best-known in Japan for reinventing the yakuza genre. Under the employ of Japan’s big-budget Toei studio, Fukasaku tranformed these organized crime capers from rote celebrations of honor and chivalry into uncompromising depictions of the back-stabbing, drug-addled moral squalor that characterized real mob life. While this subject matter may by now be familiar to any American who’s seen a Scorsese picture, Fukasaku shot his first critical hit Wolves, Pigs, and People in the real-life mean streets of a Japanese slum nearly a decade before Scorsese made his first mob film. And anyone who’s seen Goodfellas is already familiar, though Scorsese’s liberal borrowing, with elements of Fukasaku’s kinetic style, a style which punctuates sudden still-frame impositions, editorial voiceovers, scrambled-up film stocks, and colorful explosions of text with frequent crimson splatters of gore. Fukasaku’s compassion for his characters, though, is what makes their blood-soaked trajectories so morally bracing, and his massive success in Japan is due as much to this grim honesty as to his skill as a purveyor of pulp. The director’s best yakuza pictures transcend their lurid subject matter to become harsh-lit exposés of postwar Japan’s demoralized spirit, and, more broadly, unflinching dissections of human evil.
While Fukasaku has become Japan’s leading yakuza master, he has never attempted to restrict himself to this genre, and with the spirit of a true studio craftsman he has tried his hand at everything from period epics (the Pearl Harbor-themed Japan-American collaboration Tora! Tora! Tora!) to schlocky matinee fare (1968’s English-language The Green Slime). His most internationally known film, in fact, isn’t a yakuza picture at all but the gender-bending cult classic Black Lizard, a psychedelic pop-art confection in which a James-Bond-style “best detective in Japan” and a slinky jewel thief (portrayed by Kabuki transvestite Akihiro Murayama) match wits in their fight over a kidnapped nymphet. Adapted by Yukio Mishima (who also has a brief cameo role) from a story by noted Japanese horror writer Edogawa Rampo, and set to a score by electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita, Black Lizard is a seamless mix of high art and low camp.
Up until recently, Black Lizard was Fukasaku’s most notorious film, but that changed with 2000’s Battle Royale. A national scandal and box-office smash, Battle Royale takes place in a futuristic Japan in which concern about juvenile-delinquency has led to the government sponsorship of teen deathmatches. The film’s plot:, 42 boys and girls are escorted (by Takeshi Kitano) to a deserted island, given weapons, and told that the last of them left standing will be allowed to return to society. As Fukasaku’s camera watches and on-screen graphics coldly tabulate the number of living remaining, schoolfriends and young couples are forced to brutally kill each other to survive. That the combatants are 15 years old – Fukasaku’s age when the world as he knew it fell apart – is no coincidence. In fact, Fukasaku has called Battle Royale a meditation on his own childhood and a “fairy tale.” Like the best fairy tales, Battle Royale, which satirizes Japan’s oppressively competitive school system while asking difficult questions about the innocence of evil, is filled with troublingly primal images. The film also shows that Fukasaku, now 71 and with over 60 films to his name, has lost none of his stylistic edge or moral vision.
Originally published in the Austin Chronicle, September 28, 2001. Revised.