Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Movie review: "Fall Guy"

[Note: The following is my review of a Japanese movie recently released in the U.S. on DVD.]

Fall Guy is an early '80s Japanese film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, the man behind Battle Royale. But don't rent this film simply because you thought BR was a kick-ass film (which it is) and want to see more of the director's work. Fall Guy is about as different from BR as Terminator 2 is from March of the Penguins.

Fall Guy is a comedy-drama, and a silly one at that, but in a very Japanese, almost manga-ish way. The film is set in the 1960s at an unnamed Japanese movie studio where a big-budget samurai film is being made. On the set, a love triangle forms between leading man Ginshiro, his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend (and fading starlet) Konatsu, and Yasu, a bit-part actor who is a member of Ginshiro's entourage. Yasu, who absolutely worships Ginshiro, works as both a bit player and a stuntman, in an age when no boundary separated the two. Ordinarily, a nobody like Yasu would never even get the time of day from a classy moll like Konatsu, but Ginshiro's scheming brings the incongruous pair together.

One of the extras on the DVD is an insightful interview with Yamane Sadao, Fukasaku's biographer. He points out that the director took on this project after having spent the '60s and '70s making almost nothing but yakuza and samurai flicks. By the dawn of the '80s, Japan's movie studios realized that to reverse their sagging fortunes, they had to make films that appealed to women, not just men. In fact, Fall Guy was essentially Fukasaku's first film to feature a female central character, and it shows: Konatsu's histrionics go a bit over the top, but they somehow fit in with the story's screwball nature.

For Westerners, another potentially annoying element is one on which the whole film hinges—the slavish, masochistic devotion shown by Yasu (played by funnyman Mitsuru Hirata) to Ginshiro. Ginshiro, it turns out, has knocked up Konatsu (Keiko Matsuzaka), but to clean up his playboy image and hopefully salvage his career, he commands Yasu to marry her and tell the world he's the father. Yasu, though feeling completely out of his league, meekly complies. Konatsu is naturally indignant but doesn't know what else to do.

Ginshiro also hits on the idea of convincing the film's backers to restore an elaborate fight scene in which his character's heroics are sure to return Ginshiro to matinee-idol status. The scene, which was to climax with Ginshiro slicing down a bad guy who then tumbles down a ridiculously long, steep staircase, was written out of the script after the bigshot stuntman the studio hired got cold feet. Guess who Ginshiro wants to do the potentially neck-breaking stunt?

The codependent relationship between the subservient Yasu and the sometimes abusive Ginshiro may, to Americans, seem too frustrating to work in a comedy, but it is nevertheless an interesting window on Japanese society. (For better or worse, such codependence is considered a social norm there.) What makes the depiction even more annoying is the filmmakers' apparent affirmation of this extreme codependence. In American cinema, goofy slackers like Jay and his "hetero lifemate" Silent Bob may be good for a laugh, but not if Jay slapped around Bob and his girlfriend and the two of them still came groveling back. Oh, well. Different strokes, as they say.

The famous falling-down-the-stairway scene in Fall Guy was inspired by a real stunt performed for the 1969 Toshiro Mifune flick Shinsengumi (Band of Assassins). The award-winning book on which Fall Guy was based was adapted by the author from his own play. The play, book, and film are all known in Japanese by the title Kamata Koshinkyoku, which literally means "The Kamata March." It's the same name as the real-life company song of Shochiku, whose first major studio was located in, and named after, the Kamata area of Tokyo.

Fall Guy is also one of the few films available on DVD in the States in which you can see famed beauty Keiko Matsuzaka at her peak, before she hit middle age and was immediately relegated to housewife roles. Even in the sometimes outrageous '80s fashions she wears in the film, Keiko is a looker indeed.

Another thing to understand before seeing Fall Guy is how immensely popular the film was in its day. Theatergoers flocked to see it, and the critics loved it. In fact, the movie swept Japan's Academy Awards. All of Japan was imitating Mitsuru Hirata's line about needing all the stunt work he can get because "my you-know-what is you-know-what" (accompanied, in rapid-fire sequence, by the gestures for "wife/girlfriend" and "pregnant"). The movie's theme song got a lot of radio play. So did the hit song heard in the film, Koibito mo Nureru Machikado (The Street Corner Where Even Lovers Get Wet), which you can still hear crooners of a certain (middle) age belting out in Japan's karaoke bars.

Fall Guy was conceived as a nostalgic look back at the frenetic, slapdash moviemaking of the '60s. Now itself a relic of Japanese pop culture of the '80s, Fall Guy is a look back at a look back.

—Mellow Monk

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