Fall Guy (Japan, 1982)


Those familiar with director Kinji Fukasaku’s most popular titles (the yakuza sagas in the ‘70s, the samurai films in the ‘80s, and, of course, the infamous Battle Royale in 2000), may find Fall Guy to be a strange addition to the Japanese master’s repertoire. Part over-the-top comedy and part metafictional commentary on the Japanese studio system, Fall Guy is a rather peculiar pill to swallow. Based on a wildly successful stage play which ran just the year before, this screen version was a critical and commercial success, sweeping the 1983 Japanese Academy Awards (roughly the equivalents of the Oscars), winning Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, among others. Indeed, Fukasaku was a common fixture at the Academy Awards in the later part of his career (out of the 12 theatrical films he directed from 1982 until his death, Fukasaku earned 3 Best Film and 4 Best Director wins, with an additional 3 Best Film and 6 Best Director nominations). Yet films like Fall Guy have fallen through history’s cracks. At best, they only occupy a footnote in discussions of Fukasaku’s long and successful career.

The film opens with a bird’s eye shot of a movie set, as an undefined narrator utters the words: “A movie studio can be a strange and bizarre world. It can turn a false love into the real item, and it can change day into night as well.”

A new samurai film is shooting and the two stars, Ginshiro (Morio Kazama) and Tachibana (Daijiro Harada), are bickering for close-ups. At first, the focus is on Ginshiro (aka Gin-chan), an actor whose best days are behind him as he struggles for relevancy. This latest film was supposed to be his way back to the limelight, but the director keeps cutting down his scenes. Ginshiro is especially disappointed when he finds out that his grand staircase fight scene has also been cut because no stunt man is mad enough to take the 30-foot fall to almost certain death. As Ginshiro walks off the set hysterical with anger, we get the first close up of Yasu Muraoka (Mitsuru Hirata, who also participated in the stage production), one of Gin-chan’s lackeys, as he’s looking pensively at the daunting staircase.

Yasu is part of Ginshiro’s entourage, and his only concerns seem to revolve around pleasing Ginshiro’s endless whims. Yasu is able to scrape a living by taking occasional jobs as a non-speaking extra or stunt-man, though his prospects for a long-term career in the film industry don’t seem that promising. When Ginshiro tries to pawn-off his pregnant girlfriend, Konatsu (Keiko Matsuzaka), Yasu gladly accepts to marry her and take full responsibility of the child. From this moment, the film’s story focuses on the development of Yasu’s and Konatsu’s relationship, and Yasu’s herculean attempts to provide for his newfound wife and her baby. He takes more and more dangerous stunt-jobs, with seemingly no regard for his well-being. However, Yasu’s infatuation with Ginshiro never goes away, and in the end he agrees to fall from the 30-foot staircase, thus saving Ginshiro’s seemingly doomed comeback attempt.

Fall Guy employs the metafictional possibilities of filmmaking in a very unique and interesting way. A notable feature of the film is the juxtaposition of the comically exaggerated and over-the-top performances of the characters with the quite serious – even cruel – actions that they perform on screen. Gin-chan, for example, is a despicable human being in every way. He’s not only arrogant and unbearable in his professional life, but also unnecessarily cruel and selfish to the people around him. He goes as far as to rape the pregnant Konatsu in front of Yasu on a whim, only to show the dominance of his position. Yet, within the context of the cinematic universe that Fukasaku creates, actor Morio Kazama gives a performance that is very typical of the “lovable scumbag,” a classic trope in Japanese cinema (many of Toshiro Mifune’s roles fit this category). Other characters treat him that way too – immediately after the rape scene, Yasu specifically says, “He’s not a bad guy, he just goes too far sometimes.”

On the surface, the film seems indifferent of the cruelty shown on the screen. However, this is not the case. In this particular example, Fukasaku is well aware of Ginshiro’s true personality, but rather than comment on it, he allows the illusion of cinema to take over and perpetuate an idealized lie that hangs over the characters until the very end, when the lie is exposed.

The film’s ending is as comical as it is puzzling. The fourth wall is utterly shuttered as the actors smile and wave at the invisible camera as though in a curtain call. Whether this is an ode to the film’s theatrical counterpart (i.e. the stage-play by Kohei Tsuka), or a directorial nod informing the audience that everything we’ve seen thus far is an illusion, the ending creates the perception that nothing should be taken at face value. Like the narration that informed us from the very start, film can make a false love look true.  

The Japanese title, Kamata koshin-kyoku, translates as “The Kamata March,” which was the title of the theme song for the Shochiku Film Studio in the early ‘30s. The song opens and closes the film, and in both moments it emphasizes (or reveals) the metafictional nature of the story. It is a much more fitting title than the rather uninspired English alternative, Fall Guy, likely chosen to take advantage of the popular American TV series of the same name (1981-1986).

Fall Guy might not have the same popular appeal as some of Fukasaku’s other films (especially today, over 30 years later), but it is nevertheless a notable classic in the great director’s long career.  Thankfully, the film is not that hard to track down as a HD version can currently be streamed on the Criterion Channel.

John Atom