On the far side of our sun, though, forever hidden from Earth's view, lies a Bizarro planet whose West Hills patrons gleefully fund an arts organization that shows nothing but the films of Kinji Fukasaku. Somehow, these films have managed to slip through a dimensional portal of some sort and land smack in the middle of our desolate spring movie landscape.
I'll make it clear: DO NOT MISS THESE FILMS. You will be fascinated, repulsed, and thrilled by them in the short term, and in the longer view, the more tickets sold to this series, the greater chance the Film Center will indulge in similarly adventurous scheduling in the future.
My editors tell me that you might want to know a bit about Mr. Fukasaku and his films before slapping down your hard-earned cash for a night's entertainment. Well, for those who don't blindly trust my recommendations, read on--and don't come crying that you weren't warned.
Hardly known on this side of the Pacific, Fukasaku has enjoyed a prolific career in Japan for the last four decades, building a reputation with his savage, perverse take on Japanese gangster, or yakuza, films. As someone who came of age during and just after World War II (he was born in 1930), Fukasaku shows a not-unexpected fascination with Japan's postwar environment.
The typical Fukasaku yakuza film (say that five times fast!), it seems, is set in the period of American occupation, just after the war's disgraceful and dispiriting end. The landscape traversed by the sadistic antiheroes is one of utter destruction, strewn with debris and polluted to no end. This physical chaos is mirrored by the lack of a moral center in the characters' lives, which is itself a reflection of the larger despair in Japanese society brought on by the unthinkable reality of unconditional surrender and the proof of the Emperor's fallibility.
Apart from such deep sociopolitical content, though, there's a nonstop barrage of beatings, stabbings, chases, torture, cannibalism, and rape to keep things really interesting. Strangely, though, Fukasaku is generally engaged in making a more civilized point while showing this bestial behavior, be it the futility of war or the need for loyalty within families (both real and criminal ones).
Stylistically, Fukasaku throws the whole cinematic enchilada on screen, filling the Cinemascope picture with movement and detail, utilizing freeze-frame, slow-or fast-motion effects, different film stocks, colored lenses, and more, all with a rationale that relates to story or character.
The series kicks off Friday night with a screening of what is probably Fukasaku's best-known film in the States, and the only one to have been released on video, Black Lizard. It's a fairly atypical effort, but riveting in its weirdness nonetheless. Japan's Number One Detective is hired to protect the daughter of a wealthy jewel merchant from kidnapping by the eponymous master criminaless, a flamboyant femme fatale (played in drag) with a penchant for snake-throwing henchmen and "dolls" made from her victim's bodies. Colorful, campy, and surreal, it also features famously bizarre Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima as one of the Lizard's human statues.
Only a smattering of the films were available for screening by press time, so we'll have to assume that Saturday night's flick, Battles without Honor and Humanity, lives up to its hype as "One of the 20 Best Japanese Films of All Time." Under the Fluttering Military Flag (aka Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) is another departure of sorts, although the echoes of war still ring loudly in this tale of a war widow who seeks, 25 years later, the details of her husband's death. An indictment of bureaucracy and an ode to Japan's millions of war dead, it still manages to make room for several ultraviolent flashbacks to wartime New Guinea.
Graveyard of Honor and Humanity (March 31) is a case study in obeying the rules, even if you're a gangster. Hotheaded sociopath Rikio Ishikawa joins the yakuza during the war, but his complete lack of restraint sends him down a path of insane violence, cheap sex, and heroin addiction. Wolves, Pigs, and People (April 7) merits a circled calendar date; it's a supercool tale of dishonor among three crooked brothers, the youngest of whom heads a gang of teens whose idea of a good time is to head into town to "rob a citizen and hear some cool jazz." Damn, this stuff rocks.