Tokyo Fist Review

Few filmmakers encapsulate the essence of independent filmmaking as well as Shinya Tsukamoto. After bursting on to the scene in the late 80s with the cyberpunk fever dream that was Tetsuo, he's built up a body of work that seems to be the very antithesis of everything modern day Hollywood has come to typify: Pampered filmmakers churning out bloated productions that lay one CGI set piece on top of the next until you are either bludgeoned by spectacle or numbed by ever expanding runtimes.

"Switch your brain off entertainment" seems to be the de facto definition of most of today's action films because it's hard to find merit from all-too-many of these films in any other capacity, so the next time you watch the latest Michael Bay blockbuster with its nine-digit budget and empty universe populated by lazy caricatures and you're tempted to feel obligated to switch your brain off, just remember films like Tokyo Fist that manage to actually express the viewpoint and feelings of its director, but most of all prove that all you need to make an exciting action film is a 16mm camera and a handful of actors.

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When mild-mannered insurance salesman Tsuda bumps into his schoolboy chum Kojima whilst running an errand at the local boxing gym, the professionally-licensed boxer seems to take an almost obsessive interest in his life and soon starts turning up at Tsuda's apartment when he's at work so he can make advances towards his fiancée Hizuru. Jealousy soon gets the better of Tsuda, who physically confronts Kojima with devastating consequences for the meek salaryman, and although Hizuru witnesses the horror of his beating first hand, her concern for her fiancé is overshadowed by awe at the prowess and confidence of Kojima.

This confrontation provides the catalytic spark for great changes in each of their lives: Kojima finds new confidence as a boxer through his goading of Tsuda and Hizuru starts to view her relationship with the over-protective Tsuda in a completely new light. Eventually she breaks the engagement and shacks up with Kojima, which in turn drives Tsuda to train at the same gym as Kojima with the intent to exact bloody revenge and win Hizuru back. What both men don't realise is that Hizuru's personality change isn't driven by romantic affection but personal expression, which starts to take a self-destructive outlet as events escalate.

Tokyo Fist is a wonderfully stylistic film; albeit one that's often frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure given that - in true Tsukamoto style - the characters in the film don't express themselves directly but through actions and symbolic gestures. What's so fascinating and polarising about his films is that they have their own idiosyncratic language that if you're receptive to, can prove very rewarding. You don't just watch a Tsukamoto film, you let it wash over you then go away and piece the imagery together like a clever little puzzle so that when you revisit it, it's a completely new experience. Tokyo Fist is a very rewarding film in that regard; it explores these themes of repression and suppression and the internal conflicts of self-doubt and confidence in a very lively, creative way; with really extreme, expressionistic set pieces - yes it's also a film about boxing, but the action is really only there as a psycho-physical outlet for the characters.

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With this in mind, you're going to be immensely disappointed if you come into the film expecting any of the traditional trappings of a sports-action film: There are some kinetically charged training sequences and the violence and brutality of boxing is shown in an extremely exaggerated and graphic manner - pretty much to the point where it's almost cartoon-like in nature - but the "plucky everyman defeats overwhelming odds" dynamic you can almost pick up from the synopsis is not in play at all here. Instead Tsukamoto uses boxing for its exclusive boy's own nature (or at least that was the perception back in the days before female boxing took off), turning it into an outlet for aggression that Hizuru can never be a part of: Boxing is a metaphor for anxiety and social alienation, and yet despite this artistic intention, Tsukamoto still makes sure that the boxing elements are as detailed and authentic as possible - for instance he cast his younger brother Kôji in the role of Kojima because he used to be a boxer and they trained together for a full year before shooting the film, and this knowledge and experience really seeps through.

In terms of characterisation Tokyo Fist is a three-way battle royale. In opposing corners you have two men who are essentially running away from a shared tragedy in their childhood; one by turning himself into a fighting machine and the other by trying to protect himself and his lover from the harsh realities of life - but they live in a city where rot and decay is just a stone's throw away down some dark side-alley and the threat of physical violence is around every corner, particularly if your chosen profession happens to be boxing. The great irony of the story is that Kojima and Tsuda are intrinsically meek cowards: Kojima is a boxer terrified of getting hurt in the ring and Tsuda is terrified of death and deeply conflicted about the city he lives in, in fact throughout the film his view of Tokyo seems to switch back and forth between a surrogate womb or something ominously monolithic.

In between these two combatants you have Hizuru, who's perhaps the only "hero" of the piece and who has the most complex arc, going from a stereotypically submissive fiancée to an aggressive masochist who literally terrifies Kojima with her confrontational attitude. She's a deeply fascinating counterpunch for the macho one-upmanship of the men's rivalry and a suitably complex "prize" that may prove too elusive for either. This complex web of interactions and phobias coupled with Tsukamoto's usual stylistic flourishes makes Tokyo Fist an essential recommendation for fans of niche filmmaking, just sit back and don't switch your brain off!

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If you bought their UK Tetsuo/Tetsuo II BD set then you'll know very well that third window films are doing great work on these Tsukamoto releases, offering true high definition transfers apparently supervised by the director himself from his own original negatives. Tokyo Fist looks very similar to Tetsuo II here, the main difference mostly being that this film (as far as I can tell) was shot on 16mm so the image is a little softer and the dense layer of grain permeating throughout is a little fuzzier and indistinct, but despite all this close-ups and mid shots are generally pleasingly defined.

Contrast, brightness and colours are all very natural and quite lovely to see projected up on the big screen. Tokyo Fist is an extremely colourful film with rich cobalt-blue tones being most prevalent, but they occasionally give way to sequences bathed in red, yellow or orange and the 1080p AVC transfer copes with everything thrown at it, offering an expressive palette with very natural skintones during the sequences that haven't been nuked by Tsukamoto's lights (the films colourful hues are all achieved by practical lighting). Naturally with all this lighting in play shadows are never that deep, so the general look of the film is a little low contrast, but that's a good thing in this case!

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Either Tsukamoto's negatives were in great condition or third window have done some fantastic restoration work (I suspect the former) because there is very little in the way of print damage (just the occasional pop and fleck) and the generally fuzzy, grainy appearance would suggest little in the way of noise removal is in play - plus there are at least a couple of frames that appear to be fairly scratched up, but they are very infrequent and just singular frames with one or two long horizontal scratches on them so you may never notice them at all. This is a good indicator that third window haven't been heavy-handed with noise removal though! Likewise I see little in the way of any attempts at sharpening the image, there are some halos in a few shots where you have a person or building placed in front of a strong light source, but this could be natural ringing due to that background light.

The only aspect of the transfer that disappoints slightly is that video compression isn't quite as good as it should be: This is a BD25 disc, it is a grainy, hazy film to render; and if you look carefully enough cracks in the encoding do appear, but I doubt you'll notice it within the fog of all that grain to be honest. The video bitrate averages out at a somewhat respectable 25Mbps, and really for a film like this I'd have liked to have seen that average hovering more around the 35Mbps mark.

The original Japanese audio comes courtesy of a DTS-HD MA 2.0 presentation that represents the original low-fi stereo recording about as well as you can hope for, this wasn't a high-budget film and although it has a high-octane theme there probably wasn't a lot of complex sound-mixing in play, so you basically have a somewhat subdued track which nevertheless sounds exceptionally clear and clean and has strong dynamics - Just don't go expecting heavy bass and a wide, varied sound field and you won't be disappointed. Also bear in mind that these early Tsukamoto films were not shot sync-sound so often the lip movements won't always be perfectly in time with the dialogue. Do not adjust your sets! Optional English subtitles are provided for the feature film and its associated extras.

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We've got a modest but not inconsequential set of options here:

Original Japanese Trailer [00m:44s] [1.85:1, Non-Anamorphic 480i/29.970fps MPEG-2, DD2.0]
Standard-def presentation of a short trailer that has no dialogue, so no need for subs! For some strange reason this trailer was "locked in" on my Oppo BDP-105 player so I couldn't pause or rewind/fast forward.

Music Video [04m:12s] [4:3 1080p/23.976fps AVC, Jpn DTS-HD MA 2.0]
Film composer/musician Chu Ishikawa and his band Der Eisenrost created the music featured in Tokyo Fist (and most of Tsukamoto's other work). Here we have a brief clip from one of his concerts, where we see the band perform two tracks: Isolation and More On.

Tokyo Fist UK Trailer [02m:30s] [1.85:1 1080p/23.976fps AVC, Jpn DTS-HD MA 2.0, Eng Subs]
The UK trailer perfectly encapsulates the tone of the film in a two-minute flurry of noise and images, it's presented in high-quality with removable English subs.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto Interview [25m:50s] [16:9 1080i/29.970fps AVC, Jpn DD2.0, Eng Subs]
The main extra feature on this release is a recent discussion with Shinya Tsukamoto himself, which is split across three individually selectable sections that sadly can't be played all-in-one: About Tokyo Fist [18m:09s], About Tokyo Fist & Bullet Ballet [03m:23s], and General Thoughts [04m:18s]. As you might have surmised from the titles, the first section covers Tokyo Fist as an individual entity, the second section focuses on common themes between Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, while the final section (despite being called General Thoughts) asks Tsukamoto to discuss the technical aspects & differences of film and digital filmmaking.

The questions asked in this interview are well thought out and they really seek to elicit a little elucidation on the part of the director on some of the more abstruse moments and themes in the film. Whether Tsukamoto's answers provide illumination or not will be down to the individual viewer, but he's at least happy to give us a glimpse into his thought processes when making the film.

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