A cup of saké, the sound of a train going by; it takes time for the world to adjust, the music has quieted down and in loss we glimpse life. Everyone loses something. When the characters in Bad City leap into action, there it is – another world, layered and floating, instant and alive. Bodies have weight, battles are scruffy, imperfect, giving room for rough edges, adjustment and recalibration, but not for mistakes. People kill each other; life is precious. The reverence and humanity that was present in Kensuke Sonomura’s debut feature film Hydra (Sonomura, 2019) has retracted from the world, giving way to the heavy-handed and mundane. In the shape of a plodding low grade Yakuza movie, Bad City adheres to the less interesting, but can something else be traced?
Canudo (2004) expresses that film as medium is in search of life within life itself primarily through its ability to capture movement, something that emerges here in how Sonomura engages with cinematic combat. According to choreographer and professor Efva Lilja (2004) choreography creates new contexts for the existing as well as the new. Composition helps discern order in chaos and gives meaning to the fragments that constitute life, wherein movement is always present, always a medium for life.
The Floating world (ukiyo) in the Edo period of Japan was more specifically about pleasure and entertainment in urban environments but also incorporates everyday life. Depending on which character you write, it can describe the here and now (ukiyo-e (浮世) or sorrowful world (uki (憂世). Both suggest a transitory world, implying that reality is but an illusion and fleeting moments (Fiorillo, 1999). But instead of seeking pleasure, it is violence that erupts in Bad City. The visceral excitement of Sonomura’s fight scenes creates a here and now, choreographically in how the bodies move and readapt to each other, technically in how it is captured and edited clearly, and dramatically in how there are actual stakes for the characters – they might not get out of this alive, or at least will be severely beaten. This contrasts to the uninteresting narrative swallowing most of the proceedings elsewhere. There are only a couple of small moments apart from the set-pieces that hint at something (a mother’s gaze, having lost her son; the lead character having a drink; mourning a friend and colleague), brief moments connecting it to a sorrowful world. The action scenes transition the world of the film to another plane which, instead of the gangster movie’s trite artifice, suggests a heightened formalized reality that expands and replaces convention with presence and shape. Here, in the urgency and intimacy of battle, humanity asserts itself.
In the early 1900s, Isadora Duncan explored new ways of choreography and dancing. To her, the rigid positions of academic ballet was in a contradiction with nature and she sought the design in the ordinary, natural world. She sought to express simplicity both in choreography and theme. Duncan discarded the numerous characters and complicated stories of the ballet and wanted to explore more intimate, direct forms of communication and themes of courage and endurance (Au, 1988). Apart from the humorous superficial connection here between ballet and the Yakuza movie tropes, Sonomura seems very interested in the intimacy of battle as well as the endurance aspect, in what you have to go through to prevail. There is a humanity to his scrappy bouts that dictates directness. Later in the 1920s, Graham, Humphrey and Weidman also looked for ways in which to strip away the artificial prettiness of the ballet and investigate the essentials of movement. In modern action cinema, Kensuke Sonomura and to a wider extent Xu Haofeng (2011, 2012, 2015) can be said to examine similar formalist ideas in action design and choreography for cinema. Xu Haofeng in particular seems to confront cinematic representation and its distortion of combat, trying to shape new ways of portraying cinematic fighting closer to its pristine expression.
Kensuke Sonomura, his team and their work are among the most exciting in action cinema today. Here they find ample room to expand on several ideas. They incorporate more ground/floor based grappling and look for ways to combine an organic, more rough, loose style with the formalistically sharp and elegant. There’s more brawly elements as well as some cool boxing and a continued focus on defense. Everything is shot with clarity and intent, you can follow how the characters adapt to situations, change strategy or just try to pull through. Humphrey’s theory of fall and recovery analyzes the opposite states of surrendering to gravity and that of the accomplishment through balance and stability, or rather focuses on the struggle in between (Au, 1988). Sonomura approximates this battle of the body by contrasting the incorporation of a more MMA-inspired ground based grappling variation (gravity) and his more stylized, direct and clean fighting style (balance); and through this establishes a more imbalanced, dynamic state between these two poles.
In Kabuki theater, more and more elaborate stages were built to accommodate the popular theme of the actors’ sudden appearances and disappearances. This is subtly echoed here in TAK’s character’s almost otherworldly presence. As do Hitoshi Ozawa’s pronounced white hair and sharp black eyebrows with regard to the kumadori-makeup from kabuki, which used distinct lines in red, blue and black and different wigs to symbolize demons or mythological animals (Wikipedia, 2022 & Muza-chan, 2015). In the samurai movie Orochi (Buntarô, 1925), the lead actor’s descent is almost portrayed as a possessed demon in the big end fight, even stylistically heightening his appearance with make-up and lightning. This shifting of worlds and realities in the same plane expressed through physical combat is hinted at in Bad City in a toned down, more somber manner. It never succumbs to the phantasmagoric, and as such stays semi-realistic in portrayal.
The opening image here, is that of the washing of a tattooed back; soap giving way to, and uncovering a demon. Hinting at what lies hidden and will be revealed, of ritual but also of ordinary life (reinforced by images of shaving and brushing teeth in this montage). Getting a irezumi, a full body tattoo, to a yakuza signals a transition, that you will never return to a normal life (Johansson, 2019), a shift in worlds. The traditional irezumi often portray dragons, carps, samurai heroes, flowers and Buddhist saints. These symbolize different things but are usually connected to courage, tradition, evolution and strength. Tattooing demons seems unusual in the traditional practice of this art as doing so invites a demon in your skin or at least its influence over you (Johansson, 2019).
The movie starts and ends with a drum roll, suggesting a moment existing within a performance. The stage is uncovering the real within the tired, stripping away the construct of conventional gangster tropes, giving way for life, loss and combat; Life is precious. In Police Story (Chan, 1985) there is a short deleted end scene on the Japanese LaserDisc, where Jackie Chan´s and Bridgette Lin´s characters exchange glances one last time after all that they have gone through. In that moment, they share something, a change through experience that their close ones from their ordinary lives no longer can connect to. Here the glint of the lived in world is barely there at all, obscured as it is by plotting and exposition.
There is no denying those fleeting moments, the mood piece bits of urban environments and empty walls of Hydra are missed, but it is also probable that the contrast between the conventional genre movie and the lived, expressive action sequences emerging from within its trappings wouldn’t work without the divide. Some of Fred Astaire’s and Gene Kelly’s movies were designed so that the dance numbers took the form of a show within the show (Au, 1988). While there, the dance was the dream; here it is the fighting that is the real. Traced through these fight scenes and from what’s lacking, what is not expressed, a more complex reality can be glimpsed, a reality that gives room for the near mythical, the unexplained and the obscure; a reality, a world lost.
Au, Susan. 1988. ballet & modern dance. Thames and Hudson Inc.
Canudo, R. 2004. Den sjunde konstarten och dess estetik. Om filmens språk (A. Hallström translation).. I: T. Lundemo. (Red.). Konst och film – texter före 1970 . Stockholm: Raster. (Originally published as Le septiéme art et son esthétique (1922)).
Lilja, E. 2004. Danskonst i nöd och lust. Stockholm: Eld.
Fiorillo, J. 1999. FAQ: What was the « Floating World » (浮世)?
Johansson, A. 2019. Yakuza Tattoo. Årsta: Dokument Press.
Muza-chan, 2015. A bit of samurai history, the odd bear wigs.
Wikipedia, 2022. Kabuki.