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Kinji Fukasaku, 72; Japanese Director of Edgy, Violent Films

January 27, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Kinji Fukasaku, a Japanese director hailed as one of his country's living masters of cinema, whose 60 films ranged from outrageous cult hits such as "Black Lizard" and a series of violent gangster movies to the Japanese scenes in the 1970 World War II epic "Tora! Tora! Tora!", died in Tokyo on Jan. 12. He was 72.

The cause was prostate cancer, according to his film distributor, Toei Co.

Heralded by such directors as Quentin Tarantino and John Woo, Fukasaku was best known in this country for such sci-fi films as "The Green Slime" and "Message From Space." But in Japan the prolific director was respected for a broad range of adventuresome, edgy works that often used violence to make statements about social control, authority and individual freedom.

"Fukasaku brings to mind Samuel Fuller in his uncompromising, psychologically complex and visually dynamic films of much visceral impact and stinging social criticism," Times film critic Kevin Thomas noted in 2001 when the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood held a Fukasaku retrospective.

Fukasaku's last completed film was the provocative, graphic "Battle Royale," which was released in late 2000. It was about a class of high-schoolers coerced into killing one another in a bizarre game of survival. Nearly banned by the government, it was an indictment of Japan's competitive education system and other aspects of societal deterioration.

It set box-office records in Japan, packing theaters with adolescents despite an unusual R-15 rating, barring viewers under the age of 15.

At his death he was working on a sequel, "Battle Royale II," which will be completed by his son, Kenta.

In Japan Fukasaku was known primarily for a string of yakuza, or gangster, movies. They were notable for their extreme violence, including self-mutilation scenes in which gangsters attempt to atone for bungled jobs by chopping off their own fingers.

Among the most notable in this series were "Cops vs. Thugs" (1975), "Yakuza Graveyard" (1976) and "Graveyard of Honor" (1976).

Another powerful movie from that period was "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" (1973), which showed Japanese soldiers during the post-World War II American occupation banding together in gangs to salvage their pride by stealing food from street markets and murdering for a bowl of rice. It was voted one of the 20 best Japanese films of all time in a 1990 poll of Japanese film critics.

Fukasaku said his war and gangster movies drew on his experiences as a child in war-torn Japan. During World War II he was a teenager working in a weapons factory that was regularly bombed.

"During the raids," he later told an interviewer, "even though we were friends working together, the only thing we would be thinking of was self-preservation. We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs.... I also had to clean up all the dead bodies.... I'm sure those experiences have influenced the way I look at violence."

After the war, the education system was in such disarray that he left school and started spending hours at the movies. Because Japanese films, with their militaristic themes, were banned by the U.S. occupation force, Fukasaku started watching foreign movies and quickly became an aficionado.

He studied cinema at Nihon University in Tokyo before beginning his career in 1953 as a scriptwriter and assistant director at Toei, a studio known primarily for samurai and costume dramas.

He cranked out crime movies, soon distinguishing himself with carefully choreographed and grisly violence -- brawls that ended with "a lurid spray of vermilion gore, or with a severed limb sailing across the frame," critic Dennis Lim observed in the Village Voice in 2001.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Fukasaku turned away from the backdrops of war-ravaged cities and postwar black markets to make movies that explored personal relationships and Japanese tradition, such as his critically acclaimed "The Geisha House," released in 1999.

He downplayed the work that built a core of fans in the United States, such as the deliriously macabre "Black Lizard" and its sequel "Black Rose." The underworld thrillers starred female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama as an elusive jewel thief. "Black Lizard" featured Maruyama's great friend, novelist Yukio Mishima, in a cameo.

Fukasaku was drafted to direct the Japanese scenes in "Tora! Tora! Tora!" when Akira Kurosawa backed out. Although the movie won an Oscar for best visual effects in 1971, Fukasaku was dismayed by the final product as a distorted portrayal of the war and its causes.

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