16:00 - 14th December 2013, by Calum Waddell

Tokyo Fist

Where to even start with Tokyo Fist?
Let's try by giving a brief rundown of where its director, Shinya Tsukamoto, was in his career circa 1995. Still buzzing from the film festival acclaim that accompanied the esoteric monochrome madness of 1989's Tetsuo, Japan's undisputed auteur of body-horror excess took a U-turn into more traditional horror hokum with 1991's Hiruko the Goblin. The end result was considered a disappointment by fans, whilst Tsukamoto considers it to be one of his least inspired efforts (in truth, it is actually quite good fun). This then led to a return to familiar territory with a further assault to the senses: 1992's Tetsuo II: Body Hammer.

When Tokyo Fist arrived in 1995, its director had been absent from the chair for three years, and anticipation was high. What Tsukamoto unveiled, therefore, was both a surprise and an indication of a talent at the height of his powers. Indeed, Tokyo Fist remains his greatest movie. Moreover, the film's brutalising visual prowess, aesthetic ambition and total disregard for linear storytelling more than warrant this five star review.

In other words: Tokyo Fist still holds up. And then some.
Telling the story of a young insurance professional called Tsuda (played by Tsukamoto himself) who lives with his fiancée (essayed by the fetching Kaori Fujii), the film leaps into gear from the second it begins. Unlike the Tetsuo movies, Tokyo Fist initially relates a familiar plot: Tsuda loses his lady to an old childhood friend who moonlights as a professional boxer. In response, the shamed erstwhile office worker, after losing a fist fight with his nemesis, opts to train as a boxer himself - with the intention of showing his ex that she picked the wrong slice of beefcake to hop off with. So far, so simple - but where Tsukamoto excels is in his often mesmerising screen depiction of intense corporeal destruction...

Following the first two Tetsuo movies, the Japanese master of splatter was frequently compared to Canada's David Cronenberg. Whilst this comparison is not without merit, and Tsukamoto himself has welcomed it, the hyperkinetic approach of Tokyo Fist is very much its own thing. Faces are mangled, blood spurts religiously, and increasingly more lavish displays of bodily destruction are exhibited with a delicious relish. Shot before CGI wiped out a lot of the art behind practical effects, Tsukamoto also creates some of the most arresting and audacious set pieces of his entire career. It is very difficult to relay just how powerful some of the moments in Tokyo Fist really are. Often bathed in light blue hues, every fight sequence is presented from a unique stylistic perspective - with each blow to the face or body resonating with a separate expression of impact and pain.

It should also be stressed that this is not a boxing film. The sport is used as mere background, and perhaps even allegory, to explore loftier issues of redemption through pain and entrapment within the mortal condition. It is easy to understand why Tsukamoto plays the lead character himself - he expresses a sombre existentialism throughout the movie, which his eventual turn to self-torment and brutality both compliments and sacrifices.

Also of note are the surroundings of Tokyo Fist. Filming in actual locations - a factor that is itself quite disorientating giving the unreality of the moments of head-hammering violence - Tsukamoto captures a concrete jungle, of sorts. If it is 'survival of the fittest' in the boxing ring, then it is the same in the director's depiction of contemporary Tokyo. Soulless skyscrapers and empty streets add to the disillusionment of the characters onscreen and retain an atmosphere of entrapment. Tsukamoto seems to be maintaining a connection between 'escape from the body' with 'escape from modernity', and then delivers his message with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head. Sure, it might not be for everyone, but for anyone who doesn't mind a lavish, loud and occasionally ludicrous spectacle-driven nightmare, Tokyo Fist is a rollercoaster journey that still delivers a disorientating and stomach-turning ride.

There are more subtexts in Tokyo Fist that one could prod at - from the cold displays of sex (at odds with, and yet obviously linked to, the cathartic presentation of violence) to the literal fight for meaning that Tsukamoto's downtrodden insurance man comes to embrace. However, even removed from its thematic philosophising, you can very easily just kick back, turn up the volume, and watch this most unique of slice of Oriental esotericism as a thoroughly entertaining descent into hell.

Part horror movie and part action-thriller, Tokyo Fist predates Fight Club but, quite possibly, had at least some influence on the development of its Hollywood counterpart. Although less well realised than the Brad Pitt movie, this is still a must-see movie: an unpredictable opus that has to be experienced and demands discussion. Following Tokyo Fist, Tsukamoto would embark upon the craziness of Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake in June (2002) before 'maturing' into the more studied and mechanical theatrics of Vital (2004). As much merit as his later work has, we would still wager that Japan's genius of cyber-punk celluloid really hit the top with this - his most ferocious film to date.

Like a fist to the face, Tsukamoto's movie is not shy about its intended impact. This is brutal stuff, and not for the faint hearted, but nearly 20 years later and Tokyo Fist continues to pack a punch.
SCORE: 5/5
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