Boxing is a notable subgenre of the sports movie and has been the subject of a number of films from The Champ (1931 and 1979), Rocky (1976) to the critical adoration of Martin Scorsese ‘s Raging Bull (1980). Films from the Far East also make for compelling viewing, such as the anime Ashita no Joe (1970 – 1981) and under-rated Korean drama Crying Fist (2005). But of all the boxing movies out there, it is Tokyo Fist (1995) that packs the biggest punch. This is pugilism, with additional body pulverising and body piercing, as a relationship drama which has an intensity and – at times – graphic insanity that is captivating, thrilling, shocking and quite unlike any other film you are likely to see.
Tsuda Yoshiharu (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a salaryman whose life is perhaps a touch dull. He lives with his partner Hizuru (Kaori Fujii) in a Tokyo apartment and tries to maintain a respectable life/work balance. But his world is turned upside down when his former friend Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto) reconnects with him. Kojima is a boxer and he immediately takes a fancy to Hizuru; trying to seduce her, although she rejects his advances, at least initially. Hizuru is frustrated with her life and is trying to change things. Tsuda has to come to terms with his partner’s increasing desire to modify her body with tattoos and piercings, and an increasing fascination with boxing – prompted by Kojima. Friends or rivals? Their pasts – and futures – are likely to be deeper and more disturbing than many would appreciate.
Tokyo Fist is a wonderful example of what personal determination matched with a frenzied imagination can achieve. This is not to say that Tokyo Fist is a film for everybody – it is intense, brutal, graphic and uncompromising. It is a film which, despite its limited budget, nevertheless instigates a post production combination of energetically compelling score combined with blistering editing to achieve a frantic, dynamic aesthetic. Tsukamoto draws the audience into the narrative from the very title sequence with a series of ferocious edits that don’t simply rely on single shot cuts but also upon the dynamism of the camera movement. This is a graphic and violent portrayal of person on person violence; Tsukamoto depicts the boxing ring as taunting crowds seeking bloodshed even after the viewer has seen results of such activities. Right from the opening credits blood is not just spilled but spurted, saturating the lens as well as the characters. And what characters Tsukamoto has created, addressing intense and complex relationships – Tsuda is actually sempai (senior friend, effectively a mentor) to Kojima but the younger man defies the respectful attitude that he should take towards his friend and establishes a bitter rivalry. Tsukamoto cast his younger brother as Kojima – Tsukamoto Kôji had experience as a boxing coach and helped his brother develop his fighting skills to get into the role. In the interview that accompanies this release Tsukamoto recalls the creation and development of the film from its inception to the practical necessities of making a films on a minimal budget, following the release internationally of Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), his film following enjoyable genre horror fun of Hiruko The Goblin (1991)
So what makes Tokyo Fist such an essential movie? It is intrinsically cinematic in that it is edited, constructed and produced in a deeply filmic context, it is personal and yet confrontational and, above all, is utterly engaging. The effects and editing are exemplary and the boxing sequences are graphic, both in and out of the ring – noses gush torrents of blood, bruises glow with a purple intensity and the victims wince in pain. Relationships, violence and rehabilitation – with piercings and pain – are the primary themes within this film.
Quite literally an assault on the senses, Tokyo Fist is the single best ever sports movie, bar none. And that includes Raging Bull.