“YAKUZA FIGHT SCENE” A Poem By Erick Mertz


"Yakuza Fight Scene" A Poem By Erick MertzIn the second act climax of the Yakuza classic, Tokyo Drifter, two gangs of foot soldiers clash in a dockside bar room. The characters are nameless, climbing balustrades and tables under the watchful eye of tough expats and dancing girls. In this exquisitely designed scene, fighters produce brash sounds, falling into their assailant’s arms, picking up mysteriously placed loaves of artisanal bread, brandishing them like absurd swords. Look closely. Near the fight’s commencement, a tall, lean man wearing a gray suit makes eye contact with an opponent across the floor and they agree upon the engagement of fists and feet with the option of taking up a broken stair rail as an improvised weapon.

Others make similar moves, totality of expression grand, if not bizarre.

Skilled fight scene extras understand that missing their mark may be deemed acceptable, as long as the blunder fosters illusions of perpetual motion. There are no prescribed movements; only stoppage of movement is incorrect. Skilled editors find these glitches, extras momentarily adrift in the scene’s background, resembling antsy children. They omit such moments, cutting around lost motion; they remain hopeful that the best foreground performances will not be wasted to something as meaningless as an extra without direction.

Losses do occur. Those takes deemed unusable are destroyed, the moments they represent ultimately dissolved into bottomless pools of unreal. Each single camera take represents a single piece of recorded time; the scene’s composition becomes a variety of takes woven together, upholding a sense of cohesion with the film’s great premise. Director uses his camera to manipulate notions of space; an editor uses the spatial form to have his way with time. The fight scene uses a playful array of wide and establishing camera shots to scatter and disorient conventional notions of linearity. The viewer passes back and forth between them, hopefully unaware that while they are carving out a continuous arc within the total story, they are indeed skipping around in real time.

Editorial expertise however cannot cover the insertion of occasional folly. In the Tokyo Drifter fight scene, a dancer is carried toward the background kicking and screaming. Look closely though, as her body is carted out through chaos. Her leg kicks are sporadic, pauses appearing between bursts of so-called panic. She can hardly be described as resisting her captors at all, but this does not make a significant difference as the foreground fills with two leading men, their hardened gazes conveying more vital story information. As the dancing girl recedes from stage, feet now hanging limp, one can only assume the actress is free to speak out loud. Perhaps she utters: “Watch my head around this corner.”

Of course, the viewer will never know for sure.

What the viewer sees is often discordant with what they hear. While the audio mix fills with rich, chaotic noise, there is little in the fight scene to create a perfect harmony between senses. Instead, the editor creates a dense overlay of screams, thunderous crashes and punches, fist against flesh. Would he watch the emerging background players to use their movements as a guide? Not likely. The same as in the domestic scene, where a background lawnmower forms the looped drone; or the romance scene’s reliance on restaurant chatter to convey a sense that life goes on. Sound composition of the fight amounts to white noise.

Contrast lies in the foreground. Composition in this space is less puzzling than in the background. In the foreground there are only heroes, men whose chiseled faces will grace video box covers, reproduced to new powers of infinity that can only be truly appreciated with each successive technological generation following its execution. Watch closely, as two men stand wide, squaring off on opposite ends of a tight 16×9 rectangle. Their suit backs, impeccably starched in spite of duress, comprise the scene’s active border. Fists knotted, they push their sleeves up to the elbow, knowing the brawl’s outcome before it begins. This frame provides the finest context toward greater story logic and here, in the chaotic serenade, is where the actor’s talent emerges. They have rehearsed this exact moment together. They know the cue and linger until the instigator drops his left hand to his hip so slightly that a camera eye cannot detect the movement.

Then they engage.

Meanwhile, no such precision exists in the scene’s background. Without a microphone, the extra fighters are free to express their intentions, negotiating overtly, more like barkers in the local market. “If you strike me with your right hand,” the man in the gray suit says. “I will do this.” And then he demonstrates a series of dramatic responsive movements. Their performance may break authenticity but they never break with continuity, the scene’s most crucial aspect. A gnarled fist extends and the man in the gray suit falls backward to the floor as he described; then he waits. His assailant knows that the broken railing is at his right hand, and for an instant, he imagines himself lifting it over his head, spinning it in a menacing circle like Mifune in, Red Beard a more classic film.           

Then he lunges with improvised spear in hand; but he misses. Still on the floor, the man in the gray suit laughs out loud at the obvious folly. “You missed, you missed.” He repeats his jibe because there is no concept of the fourth wall so deep inside the fight scene; the camera, still rolling on the foreground, has no interest in memorializing missteps. The folly is theirs and only theirs to share.

Many years later, these extra actors reconvene in a downtown apartment. The man in the gray suit has aged quite well; this is not true for his counterpart. They watch the fight scene in slow motion on a pull down screen and continue laughing, reminded of their curious place in the composite sketch. The take containing their folly made the final cut, an inclusion they relish. The movie they made, Tokyo Drifter was a collection of light and shadow; theirs were two background roles within that coarse spectrum, supporting an amplified extrapolation of the familiar cultural themes of violence, loyalty and rebellion.

Before parting that night, they make a solemn pact. They will never reveal the real identity of that moment, unless it is to one another. Their pact only lasts a short time however. The second man passes away soon after their meeting and at the funeral, the man in the gray suit pantomimes grandiose actions that no one gathered around the grave, not even the widow, understands.

Copyright 2015 by Erick Mertz


About This Poem

Another of my writing functions is as a screenwriter. There is a ponderous similarity between poetry and screenwriting, perhaps the focus on image, and economy of language. Watching films, I am often transfixed by the raw compressions of time, how that thirty seconds we watch came by way of countless hours of preparation, culminating in actors, on a set, standing around, waiting for the call for action. These actors are friends. They talk about their kids. They joke about someone who had too much to drink the night before. And when one of them dies unexpectedly, their contemporaries come out to mourn the passing. It’s that simple. We’re all just people going to work and connecting the absurd moments in our lives before we pass on.

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