Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Birdman, as well as David Cronenberg’s upcoming Maps To The Stars, has us thinking back on other showbiz satires.
A staircase set built to three times normal scale on the Toei backlot, so tall that no stuntman will agree to fall down it—that’s the central image of Fall Guy, Kinji Fukasaku’s satire of showbiz, celebrity, working-class aspirations, and everything else that ticked the veteran genre director off.
The staircase is a pliable, all-purpose metaphor. It’s introduced as an unfinished set, designed for a climactic scene in a samurai movie. The production is in trouble; fading pretty-boy Ginshiro (Morio Kazama, dressed in some of the ugliest clothes known to man) is feuding with his co-star, trying to turn every setup into a close-up. The Toei bigwigs have decided to scrap the final swordfight, convinced that nobody could be crazy enough to do the necessary stuntwork.
Of course, Ginshiro is mad; it’s supposed to be his big scene. He’s got other problems, too; he’s gotten a young woman, Konatsu (Keiko Matsuzaka), pregnant, and the news could ruin his public image and already faltering career. He convinces a dopey member of his entourage, Yasu (Mitsuru Hirata), to marry the girl and say that the baby is his. They take their wedding photos on the staircase set. And now that Yasu has a family to support, he needs a real job. What does he do? He becomes a stuntman.
It could be argued that Fall Guy, with its groveling underlings and abusive, bossy stars, is really a yakuza black comedy in showbiz drag. Fukasaku—best-known Stateside for his final film, the similarly satirical Battle Royale—was one of the defining stylists of the Japanese gangster flick. Though Fall Guy is less frenetic than his work in that genre, it frames the film industry in a way that makes it look an awful lot like a criminal underworld, founded on hypocritical ideas about loyalty and obligation. (Incidentally, though Fall Guy is set at Toei, where Fukasaku started his career, it was produced by its competitor, Shochiku.)
Ginshiro thinks his career depends on the staircase scene. Yasu believes he and Konatsu owe Ginshiro—a man who has ruined both of their lives—a debt. Everyone’s a sucker. The defining quality of that staircase—which, no surprise, figures in the movie’s climax—is that it will only be completed if there’s someone willing to take the fall. Otherwise, it sits unfinished.
Availability: Fall Guy is available on an out-of-print DVD, or can be streamed through Hulu Plus.