Fall Guy is a very, very, very good movie.
There is a scene, about an hour and twenty minutes into Fall Guy that rivals the best drama I’ve ever seen in any film, at any time.
First and foremost, Fall Guy is a film specifically about a man who agrees to fall down a 30-foot tall flight of stairs as the denouement to a cheap samurai film in production. Why does he do this? The reasons are more complex than you might imagine and that makes up the majority of the drama in Fall Guy.
This film is both an homage to, and a funny indictment of, the 70s-80s Japanese studio system, the egos of the stars who dominated it, and little romances that occur within. It’s a comedy, a drama, and a romance film based on a very successful stage play.
When samurai film star Gin-Chan’s popularity begins to wane in the middle of his latest production and he is about to be eclipsed by newcomer Tachibana, Gin-Chan leans on his entourage of sycophantic bit players to restore his stature at Toei studios; one of these bit-players is Yasu, the naïve country boy who is willing to kill (or so he says) for Gin-Chan.
Gin-Chan is an asshole of majestic proportions, he eagerly uses those around him irrespective of the consequences, is self centered to the point of sociopathic solipsism, an egomaniac with a lust for young and innocent women, a slob, a show off, and a complete and utter fuckwit.
Why then do the bit players hang around with him? Simple, they want to be just like he is. He has plenty of money, a beautiful lover named Konatsu (formerly an actress at Toei), a huge house, autograph hounds etc, and given the chance, as Yasu is later, become as big a dick as he is.
He’s like a role model for assholes.
See, the problem with being a bit player at Toei, and really any Japanese studio, is that the pay is crap, the jobs are often dangerous (especially in the martial arts films), and you’re treated almost as well as the guy who cleans the toilets on location. But there is always a chance that a bit player will make the jump from “thug 2 who gets thrown through a window” to a series player, or even a star.
But there’s a snag in the production, the script features a scene where someone, a bit player, is killed and rolled down a 3-foot high staircase. Without that scene the film will surely flop, Tachibana will most certainly eclipse Gin-Chan, and his entourage will be stuck looking for another star’s coat tails to ride.
Gin-Chan exploits this system, apparently as many, many, many other stars did, and decides to pass off Konatsu when she becomes pregnant and chase the young and alluring Tomoko, a girl whose thigh he autographs in the parking lot.
Konatsu, of course, doesn’t want anything to do with this, but Gin-Chan insists. Yasu, who is an honorable man that wants to help his mentor, is also in love with Konatsu and has been since he first saw her in a film.
She reluctantly agrees to marry him.
Yasu demonstrates his love by hustling for increasingly dangerous jobs on set to earn enough money to furnish his hovel and offer Konatsu a small measure of comfort. When she slips into toxemia (high blood pressure brought on by pregnancy) Yasu struggles to take care of her and maintain his career as an amateur stuntman.
Up to now, all of this has been very, very funny; lots of broad comedy, tons of slapstick and frenetic madness. But when Yasu takes Konatsu home to his village to meet his family the tone of the film changes completely, but with such precision that I wasn’t jarred at all.
Konatsu learns just how nice Konatsu is, how pleasant his family is, how they love him and care for him and beg her not to abandon him. They even know that the baby probably isn’t his. Yasu isn’t the type of man that women fall in love with, so says his mother.
But Konatsu does, slowly, while still pining a little for Gin-Chan who makes a half-hearted attempt to win her back when his relationship with Tomoko falters. Konatsu is torn, Gin-Chan for all his assholeishness is the father of her baby, and like all women I think, she believes that maybe, just maybe, she can change him from a rogueish asshole into something resembling a responsible human.
The fact that Gin-Chan even proposes fucking over Yasu on his wedding day illustrates the enormous ego he possesses.
Once Yasu agrees to take the fall and save both the production and Gin-Chan’s career he slowly realizes the depth of his predicament. But he’s an honorable man, he’ll take the fall, even if it means he’s going to die.
Remember that scene I mentioned in the beginning? The day before the stairway shoot where Yasu is sure he’s going to die, destroys his apartment in a fit of rage that both illustrates his fear (which he can’t show) and his love for Konatsu (which he also can’t show) and transforms him into a short-loved clone of Gin-Chan. I watched this scene four times. Yes, it’s THAT good.
Anyway, before I spill the entire film…
Fall Guy was directed by Kinji Fujasaku, known more than anything for Yakuza crime films and the occasional science fiction disaster (“The Green Slime” and the atrocious “Message from Space”) takes this former stage play to the screen with such wit and skill that I found myself pausing the playback to watch how he framed the scenes.
It’s no surprise to me that Fall Guy won several of the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars, the acting is not only excellent, it’s exemplary, Keiko Matsuzaka is incredible as Konatsu, but Mitsuro Hirata (Yasu) moves so fluidly between slapstick, pathos, rage, sorrow, and tenderness he’s like ten guys trapped in a single body. He is, quite simply, the best actor I have ever seen in a Japanese film. Morio Kazama (Gin-Chan) is also fantastic and his final scene at the top of the steps is something colleges should show in acting classes.
To top this all off, Fall Guy even has a non-speaking cameo by Sonny Chiba!
Home Vision Entertainment releases Fall Guy in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen, original Japanese with English subs, monaural sound (which is how it was filmed I think), and contains a trailer, another interview with Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, an interview about the film in the slip case, and a filmography.
The picture is beautifully crisp and I never really noticed that it wasn’t in Dolby or THX stereo as I was too wrapped up in the characters to give even half a shit about the audio.
This is the best DVD I’ve seen this year and one of the best films I’ve ever seen.