This piece was published to coincide with our screening of Tokyo Fist at The Garden Cinema 26/07/23
There are a lot of great boxing films, but Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist is unique. More of a horror film than a conventional sports drama, Tsukamoto cuts through tender skin to reveal the festering world of fragile masculinity that lies beneath.
Tokyo Fist follows Tsuda (played by Tsukamoto himself), a meek insurance salesman whose drab life with his fiancee Hizuru (Kajori Fujii) is disrupted by the reappearance of Kojima (played by Tsukamoto’s brother), an old friend who is now a professional boxer. What follows is an increasingly unhinged body horror spectacle, as both men push themselves past breaking point in a doomed attempt to prove their manhood. Meanwhile, Hizuru responds by experimenting with drastic body modification that toes the line between self-expression and self-mutilation.
Released before Fight Club (either the book or film), Tsukamoto situates the drama in a similar middle-class, urban milieu - deploying many of the same ideas and narrative elements. However, the world of repressed salarymen is perhaps even more grim than the Western equivalent. Through a cranked-up Office Space-esque montage, Tsukamoto grounds us in the stifling world of Tsuda’s professional life — interrupted by occasional bizarre encounters or less-than-reassuring omens like a maggot-infested cat carcass. Tsuda is repeatedly framed against towering concrete structures, creating a Ballardian feeling of urban oppression — reinforcing his insignificance against the backdrop of the mega-city. ‘Tokyo’ is equally as important as ‘Fist’, and Tsukamoto captures the city with a startling expressionism.
Tsuda’s domestic life is hardly an improvement. In the poky, anonymous flat he shares with Hizuru, their relationship is devoid of sex or passion. Tsuda’s perception of his fiancee is defined by his jealousy and paranoia. Early in the film, a photo of her used in a pamphlet for her company sends him into a jealous rage. The arrival of the more outwardly masculine (and better looking) Kojima exacerbates his insecurities (the fact Kojima is played by Tsukamoto’s own brother is a curious meta element). Once Hizuru leaves him for Kojima, things only get worse, triggering Tsuda’s obsession with stepping into the ring himself.
However, this is not a straightforward virgin-chad dichotomy. Behind the macho exterior, Kojima quickly reveals himself to be just as much of a mess as Tsuda. Under the hardened muscles lies a similar broiling sea of insecurity and cowardice: it transpires he is terrified of fighting and had previously reneged on a bout after getting cold feet.
Before long, it's Hizuru who emerges as the most ‘alpha’ figure in the bizarre love triangle, undergoing her own journey of self-discovery that leads to an unlikely form of enlightenment. As the two men fall deeper into crisis, Hizuro begins perforating her own flesh. Initially relatively benign (though rendered in Tsukamoto’s signature graphic style), she first pierces her ear, but soon the insertions get larger. By the end, she is punctured with rebar from head to toe.
Tsukamoto inverts typical combat sports narratives wherein fighting equals empowerment by instead presenting boxing as a desperate performance of masculinity obscuring a fundamental weakness. Likewise, rather than framing Hizuru’s behaviour as straightforwardly self-destructive, Tsukamoto instead depicts it as strangely empowering. Liberated from her trad-wife aesthetic, her new appearance is frightening to Tsuda, but reflects a complex interiority her husband can’t comprehend.
Hizuru’s is by no means the only body to undergo a jarring physical transformation. Over the course of the film, both Tsuda and Kojima incur immense damage to their faces in particular. Tsukamoto deploys cartoonishly gruesome practical effects to realise the men’s injuries. By the film’s end, Tsuda is unrecognisable, masked in swollen black and purple swellings. Although squeamish viewers might find it hard to stomach, the extremity of what’s on-screen reads as more comedic than anything.
Tsukamoto is no stranger to body horror, having already used himself as a canvas for visionary practical effects in his iconic Tetsuo series. In Testsuo, Tsukamoto plays another archetypal salaryman (literally credited as such), who gradually transforms into a human-machine hybrid. The film explores the dehumanising impact of technology, in the same way Tokyo Fist explores the miserable experience of pre-millennial neo male life. In Tetsuo, the tendrils of wires and machinery that gradually consume his physical form are rendered in stark black and white, giving the film a surreal, gothic atmosphere in the same vein as David Lynch’s Eraserhead or The Elephant Man. Tokyo Fist is more vibrant, filled with saturated colours — electric blues with bursts of orange. The hyperreal aesthetic contributes to the film’s feeling of escalating derangement, as the characters become increasingly untethered from reality, driven purely by their id.
The generally extreme vibe is supported by a pounding, propulsive score by the Japanese industrial group Der Eisenrost. From the film’s frenetic cold open which sees Kojima throwing hands in a smoke-filled space while staring manically into the camera, the film's soundscape remains as assaultive as the visuals. Diegetic sounds of squelching wounds, anguished screaming, and fists smashing against bone combine with violent percussion, classical guitars and an operatic wail by a distinctly feminine voice. The result is a distillation of the film’s themes — brutal, discordant motifs churning with elegant construction into a frightening, feverish symphony.
As in all great body horror films, the physical form becomes a manifestation of whatever psychological turmoil lies beneath. In Tokyo Fist, the characters wear their pain, rage, and terror on their skin. By fusing these provocative images onto a genre as rife with cliches as the boxing film, Tsukamoto drastically subverts viewer expectations, creating something equal parts horrifying and hilarious. Blood-soaked, nightmarish and endlessly perceptive in its exploration of gender dynamics, Tokyo Fist is a masterwork by one of Japan’s most original voices.