Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto, Hisashi Saito
Cast: Kahori Fujii, Shinya Tsukamoto, Koji Tsukamoto, Naomasa Musaka, Naoto Takenaka, Koichi Wajima, Tomorowo Taguchi, Nobu Kanaoka, Akiko Hioki, Kiichi Muto
Running Time: 87 min.
By Kyle Warner
Shinya Tsukamoto, throughout his career, has brought his particular vision to a variety of genres. Due to the legendary status of the Tetsuo trilogy, Tsukamoto is often thought of as a director of cyberpunk. This is wrong. Shinya Tsukamoto is, at his core, a horror filmmaker. When a director adds their special seasoning to a drama, especially one that’s been seen before like boxing pictures or war films, it’s important to understand that director’s instincts. And, instinctually, Tsukamoto will return to horror concepts and vibes more than any other. Tokyo Fist is not a horror film, but it’s clear it was made by a horror director.
A salaryman named Tsuda (Shinya Tsukamoto) makes the rounds trying to sell insurance door-to-door. The city of Tokyo is presented as a hostile environment. The heat is unbearable. The noise is a ceaseless drone. The surroundings are claustrophobic—Tsukamoto’s Tokyo is an oppressive, almost predatory place. When he comes home to his girlfriend Hizuru (Kaori Fujii), Tsuda is too exhausted to do anything. It’s not until he runs into an old high school friend named Kojima (Koji Tsukamoto) that Tsuda begins to wake up. Kojima, a happier, younger man, is in excellent shape and trains as a pro boxer. One day Kojima comes to Tsuda’s place to find that only Hizuru is home. After a period of pleasant chitchat, Kojima takes off his shirt to show off his muscles, then gets overly-confident and goes in for a kiss. Though Hizuru rejects him right away, Kojima brags about the incident to Tsuda, and Tsuda assumes that more happened than his girlfriend is telling him. Tsuda storms his way over to Kojima’s apartment, confronts him, and receives two swift, practiced punches to the face for his troubles.
Like much of Shinya Tsukamoto’s filmography, Tokyo Fist is a story of becoming something else. When Kojima taunts Tsuda, he awakens a primal fury in the weaker man that he may soon regret. Likewise, when Tsuda accuses Hizuru of indiscretions, he ends up driving her directly into the arms of Kojima. Their transformations are small at first, driven by emotion, but it soon goes deeper. Tsuda, an insecure conservative, cannot stand being looked down upon. He begins training at the same gym as Kojima, turning himself into something lethal. Hizuru, who’d long been too eager to please others, decides to make herself happy. And what makes Hizuru happy is pain; she begins with ear piercings, and soon moves onto more extreme body work. And Kojima, the man who did not fully comprehend the danger of kicking the hornet’s nest, is forced to contend with both a violent rival and a strange affair.
In addition to being a boxing picture and a drama about a very unhealthy love triangle, Tokyo Fist is largely about wounded male pride. Kojima is turned down by Hizuru, so he screws things up for everybody. And Tsuda, though initially right to be angry, loses the high ground when he becomes suspicious and controlling of his girlfriend. While the men, driven by machismo and the need to be #1, train to better destroy one another, Hizuru undergoes an awakening and becomes a more complete woman. Her interest in body piercings should not distract from the fact that her story is the most inspiring and psychologically stable of the three. This was a woman who bowed to the flawed men in her life, and now she is setting the terms. It is a similar evolution to the one seen in Tsukamoto’s 2002 film A Snake of June, which saw the female lead’s sexual awakening when her path crosses with a villain from the outside world.
As Hizuru, actress Kaori Fujii (Linda Linda Linda) is something of a revelation. The little known actress deserves more work, if her performance in Tokyo Fist is any indication. As Tsuda, writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto delivers a strong dramatic performance. One of the things I’m struck by with Tsukamoto-the-actor is that he’s always more than willing to play unlikable characters in the films he directs. Though I think it’s fair to say that Tsukamoto is a more interesting director than he is an actor, his abilities on screen are nothing to sneeze at, and the role of Tsuda ranks as one of his best performances.
Stepping into the role of Kojima is Shinya Tsukamoto’s brother Koji, in his screen debut. Although Koji Tsukamoto originally dreamt of being a boxer, one bad bout left him badly beaten up. He turned to training other boxers after that, but the dream of getting in the ring again never abated. When, in his late 20’s, Koji Tsukamoto decided to put the gloves back on, the Tsukamoto family worried for his safety. Shinya decided that, if he made a boxing movie, everybody would be happy—he would get to direct a new movie, his brother would get to strap the gloves on again in a safer environment, and his mother wouldn’t have to worry about Koji getting hurt. Koji had never acted before, but you can’t really tell that in Tokyo Fist, where he gives a primal, half-crazed performance. Though he’s not become a prolific actor, Koji Tsukamoto did go on to do more films, including a few more with his director brother, as well as Takashi Miike’s Ley Lines and Yojiro Takita’s When the Last Sword is Drawn.
The fights, filmed in the same visually weird style as the rest of the film, are horrifying and intense. You won’t see tightly choreographed moves or emotional underdog moments that get the audiences on their feet. Tokyo Fist’s fights are about brutality. A well delivered punch can elicit a spray of blood that’d feel right at home in a later Tarantino work. And while I enjoyed these aspects of the film, I do feel Tsukamoto went overboard with the makeup to display the injuries. After a severe pounding, the bruises and welts are exaggerated and almost cartoonish. It’s violent and gross, so I’m not sure we’re meant to laugh, but we also cannot take it 100% seriously, either. Still, this is Tsukamoto trusting his instincts, and instinctually he remains in touch with his horror roots. Added to the strange visual choices is the film’s intense and at times otherworldly score by longtime Tsukamoto composer Chu Ishikawa. Composer Ishikawa rarely works on films made by other directors, so his music is perhaps the secret ingredient to what makes a Tsukamoto film feel so different. The director and composer complement each other well.
Boxing movies are everywhere, leading one to think that perhaps they’ve seen it all before. Well, you’ve never seen a boxing movie like Tokyo Fist before. Savage, strange, deep, and surprisingly progressive, Tokyo Fist remains one of Shinya Tsukamoto’s finest films.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10