A filmography of Seijun Suzuki is included at the end of this essay.
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Australians are being treated to a mini-retrospective of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki in the 49th Melbourne International Film Festival. It is an opportune moment to be introduced to this festival season of six Suzuki films from the ’60s, for though we are watching them more than thirty years later, the films of this Japanese maverick, now in his ’70s, have a precursive sensibility, bespeaking of postmodern art and the kind of new plastic ideas that we have come to take for granted in the last decade of the 20th century. The fact that Suzuki’s films can be appreciated even more now than at the time they were made is proof of his precocious, far-sighted talent. His films now appear diagrammatic of the modernist movement in cinema that grew from the transcendental visions of the alienation of modern living (Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson) and its transportations into postmodern art, beginning with Godard and Suzuki’s contemporary, Nagisa Oshima. Suzuki’s works appear even more precocious and contentious than either Godard’s or Oshima’s. He seems to bridge the kinetic mood of Godard with the more serious tones of Oshima. Today, it is easy to see how Suzuki, rather than Godard or Oshima, is clearly the progenitor of such contemporary directors as Wong Kar-wai, Sabu, John Woo, and Jim Jarmusch.
Suzuki’s calculated B-movie renditions of yakuza thrillers put him in the company of Samuel Fuller, the one Western director most often invoked upon mention of Suzuki’s name. But Suzuki, as a stylist of Japano-trash, could also be compared to Mario Bava, the great stylist of Eurotrash. Indeed, Suzuki may be compared with any of the great mavericks who subvert the studio system by personally reinventing or restructuring popular conventions of cinema, and mostly getting away with it (think of Welles, think of Corman, think of Melville). The works of such directors knock the idea of classical perfection in grand fashion, exuding exuberance almost as an end in itself. It’s a pity, therefore, that we are treated to a mini-retrospective that necessarily limits the range of Suzuki’s exuberance. Even though the films chosen are apparently representative of the Suzuki style and preoccupations, they represent only a very small fraction of the Suzuki oeuvre, culled from the middle period of his career (from about 1961-1967), and entirely ignoring his early and later periods (he has made some 47 films and still remains active).
The ones we get to see are quite possibly Suzuki’s masterpieces. There seems little doubt that films such as Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) are intrinsically epitomic visions of the gangster genre picture, even in their own time (the ’60s), that could only leave their marks on younger generations of filmmakers. Directors like John Woo and Wong Kar-wai have certainly taken their cues from Suzuki in their own reworkings of the gangster genre – Woo with his obsessions on the theme of yi, the Chinese concept of righteousness which carries the same undertones as the Japanese concept of giri (usually translated into English to mean “obligation”), the yakuza canon that Suzuki expounds in pin-pricking fashion; and Wong with his recastings of time and space, two dimensional concepts of narrative which Suzuki orchestrates with impish felicity. In terms of style, Suzuki appears even more geometric or fractured than Woo or Wong and that’s a case of the master being rather more inimitable than his influence might suggest. Ultimately, the spirit and substance of Suzuki matters more than his style although it is a matter of supreme triumph that the style remains his own.
In a way perhaps unintended by the organizers, the rather limited scope of the retrospective reflects Suzuki’s own direction that his career as the eternal Young Turk of Japanese cinema had taken him. He had never been given much scope or space. Suzuki had about ten years to show his mettle as a director, from the time he made his debut in 1956 to the time of Branded to Kill, released in 1967. That ten years was spent working in the Nikkatsu Studio, whose boss Kyusaku Hori had once said, in the ’50s, that films were “a minor business.” (1) Suzuki’s career within Nikkatsu – his unorthodox style and brand of humour – may be interpreted as an artist’s rejoinder of his boss’ words. He stamped his own absurdist brand of authority on the films he made for Nikkatsu, and the “Suzuki style” is really a brilliant parody of “minor business”. Even as he matured as an artist, Suzuki was forced to work with austere budgets and tight schedules but yet managed to make the most of his productions purely on artistic vim. And in 1967, following the completion of Branded to Kill, Suzuki was fired by the studio for making “incomprehensible movies.” Many years later, Suzuki would say in an interview: “Why make a movie about something one understands completely? I make movies about things I do not understand, but wish to.” (2) Though he brought suit against the studio for unlawful dismissal and won a settlement, Suzuki’s career was thrown into limbo, and he didn’t resume filmmaking until ten years later.
The Suzuki style is now touted as legendary, almost like something out of the blue. To a receptive audience (and in his time, Suzuki had a keen following among students), there’s more than a touch of spontaneous experimentation in his films – the deliberate nature of cutting the sequential flow of his narratives and an imperative style that demands symbolic use of colours or high-contrast monochrome, hyperbolical sets and lighting, and stylized acting. The formalized nature of Suzuki’s filmmaking means that he could not have come from nowhere. I would contend that Suzuki was a master of design and that he could not have accomplished what he did without some foreknowledge of what he wanted to do. After all, he claimed to have patterned his films after traditional Kabuki and its three points of departure: the love scene, the murder scene and the battle scene. “Translated into film, those are the three basic ingredients of entertainment.” (3)
And there is the rub of Suzuki criticism. Despite his credentials as a radical artist, Suzuki is essentially an entertainer. He invests his pictures with the qualities of pop-art illusion and, in true sleight-of-hand style, views himself as a “prophet” rather than as an artist. Perhaps that is why Suzuki is something of a paradox. The director’s first name, Seijun, is made up of the kanji (Chinese characters) meaning “clear” and “flowing”, and, despite the patent non-linearity, his narratives do resolve themselves clearly and flowingly (so much so in fact that if one were to approach Suzuki’s films with certain preconceptions about his inaccessibility, one would be left at the end of his pictures with the sense of wondering what the fuss was all about). On a micro level, Suzuki invites his audience to view his movies in apparently unstructured blocks or collages, but on a macro level, his pictures are fulfilments, epiphanies, and yes, prophecies of a kind.
Suzuki is really a postmodern visionary in two key genres: the gangster picture and the road movie. It is worth repeating that he is the forerunner of the fractured narrative noir style, exploring byways and alleyways in film noir heartland (witness Wong Kar-wai, Quentin Tarantino). His pictures are urban mythologies set before their times. Thus, Tokyo Drifter is really a western, or the film that plays most with the mythology of the western, inclusive of conventions such as bar-room brawls and gunfights. Fighting Elegy (1966) is a youth movie that uncannily anticipates the rites of passage of American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), inclusive of conventions of adolescent fantasies, masturbation rituals, and psychological complexes built around repressed sex and desire.
But Suzuki’s films are even more unique in another respect. References to the western or other American genres can’t really disguise the Japanese-ness of Suzuki’s pictures and their observations of the Japanese psyche in situations of extremity (such as war and love). The Story of a Prostitute (1965) and Fighting Elegy are melodramas of Japanese militarism, studded with hysterical and hilarious depictions of the rise of Japanese fascism through the educational establishment and the army, and the ideology’s subjugation and distortion of sexual desire in its push to gain hegemony over the whole of East Asia. As studies of Japanese militarism or the militaristic mind-set that was the cause of so much pain and suffering, these two films remain in a class of their own, quite unequalled by other Japanese films that I have seen. The Story of a Prostitute is, in addition, an exposé of the issue of “comfort women” in World War Two, set against the background of the Sino-Japanese War. Its story of a Chinese prostitute and her obsession with a young Japanese soldier is allegorical and romantic, with surreal touches that brilliantly illustrate the psychological signification of Suzuki’s works.
The Story of a Prostitute was the second film in the director’s “Flesh Trilogy” featuring the actress Yumiko Nogawa. The first film in the trilogy was Gate of Flesh (1964), a tale of survival among the downtrodden in Tokyo immediately after the war, focusing on a small sorority group of prostitutes and their internal tensions and jealousies as one of the women, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), falls in love with returned serviceman Ibuki (Jo Shishido), who is hiding out in the ruined premises occupied by the women. Ibuki is on the run from American MPs for knifing a GI after stealing a cache of penicillin to peddle in the black market. Maya breaks the code of the sorority of whores by sleeping with Ibuki and not demanding payment, and is accordingly punished by being strung up naked and whipped (she being the third such victim of the sorority’s wrath). Like Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh is a testament of human weakness and the need for love. Perhaps because of their basis in “flesh appeal”, both works are swaddled with inordinate camp value, but they are among the strongest of Suzuki’s works. Erotica is mixed with the usual Suzuki preoccupations (the notion of giri, for example – the code of loyalty and obligation that ostensibly binds the unsavoury denizens of the underworld into a bondage-system of “ethical” behaviour, at least among themselves). The films show that the director is as comfortable dealing with women’s business as he is with men’s, notwithstanding that Suzuki’s women are mostly prostitutes, molls, or entertainers.
Gate of Flesh and The Story of a Prostitute (I haven’t yet seen the third instalment in the trilogy, Carmen from Kawachi ), together with Fighting Elegy, strike me as less typical Suzuki pictures, more revealing of what the director has to say about Japan and the sense of mental disquiet arising from its history. Even in the incongruent milieu of Suzuki, they stand out as somewhat more discordant pictures than the rest, if not in style than in subject matter. Given the unpredictable nature of much of Suzuki’s art, such a conclusion can only remain strictly reserved, conditional upon the discovery of more of the director’s works. In the West, at least, Suzuki’s reputation seems to be founded on a string of yakuza thrillers where the action rings true to form albeit in a highly outré manner. Films such as Kanto Wanderer (1963), Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill are now considered quintessential Suzuki works, but while they can be enjoyed as inherently cinematic adventures, they also show why they are problematic works that resulted in Suzuki’s relative obscurity and neglect in world cinema for so long. In a sense, the career of Seijun Suzuki illustrates clearly the problem with visionary directors, which is that they come to a dead end far sooner than most other directors.
Suzuki made a lot more yakuza pictures than I’ve been able to see, but from Kanto Wanderer to Branded to Kill, we can clearly discern a progression towards self-mockery of the genre and self-contempt for Japanese cinema. The films are evidently symptomatic of the director’s travails while working within the studio system, and are manifestly irreverent studies of the yakuza genre. Kanto Wanderer retains a lot more feeling for the old-style yakuza picture and it’s a classic in its way — an intricate study of the kind of gangster ethics guiding relationships and loyalties that mark Suzuki’s other yakuza pictures. With Youth of the Beast, Suzuki was moving towards parody — its sense of pastiche being all too palpable in the action climax where the hero-protagonist (Jo Shishido) is hung upside down from a chandelier but still manages to swing his way out of his predicament by getting hold of a gun and shooting down the bad guys. But its detective mystery antecedents (from a best-selling novel) provided a buffer against the self-contempt that was to become more evident as the director found his support eroding from the studio. Similarly, with Tokyo Drifter, the playful allusions to the western are a counteractive reminder of just how conventions of genre can be used to advantage, and the self-mockery is so much easier to swallow for all that.
Branded to Kill is the most cynical of the lot, and it’s a real hoot. Its story of a third-rate professional killer (played by puffy-cheeked Jo Shishido) who has a kinky fetish for the smell of cooked rice and aspires to become Number One Killer, is the culmination of Suzuki’s contempt for his studio and probably the genre. The film moves gradually towards an obsidional space with the hero being hemmed into an uncertain final confrontation with his nemesis, Number One (reflective of Suzuki’s own state of siege mentality vis-à-vis his studio). The film ends in a boxing ring with crazed mutterings of “I am Champion!” on the soundtrack and its hero disappearing offside, either dead or dying. Branded to Kill may be a masterpiece, but it’s a dead-end masterpiece, and it’s instructive to note that Suzuki never made another yakuza picture. In fact, as we know, he didn’t make another picture for ten years after that.
This being a piece that celebrates Suzuki, I would like to end with a brief discussion about some trademarks of the Suzuki style in terms of production design, his remarkable use of colour and sets, that serve to unify his pictures regardless of genre or subject matter. In this regard, it is appropriate to mention that Suzuki owes much to his key collaborators such as production designer Takeo Kimura and cinematographers Shigeyoshi Mine and Kazue Nagatsuka, who have between them contributed to the Suzuki look in the director’s mature period from 1963-67. The films in discussion are a sampling of Suzuki titles, including some selected for the retrospective and other Suzuki pictures that I have been able to see on video.
About composition and colour: In Kanto Wanderer where a large part of the action takes place within the confines of dwellings, Suzuki seized the chance to make use of the horizontals and verticals of the traditional Japanese interior as compositional devices to frame his shots. These geometric elements serve not only to tie the organic shapes within them into visually satisfying wholes, they also assist the audience in the interpretation of the relationships between characters and thus help the story along. For example, in a shot where Katsuta, the old-style yakuza (played by Akira Kobayashi) confronts his opponent, another old-timer, the gambler Okaru-hachi (Yunosuke Ito), the two men are shown in mid-shot with the dark beam of the wall serving to split the screen right down the middle.
Similarly, use is made of colours and light to convey mood and to assist in story telling. Rather than to signal the passing of time, lights darken and brighten to show the changing emotions of the characters without regards to the natural behaviour of light. Many examples of this expressionist use of light and colour to represent internal experience can be found in Kanto Wanderer. In the scene where Katsuta gazes into the eyes of his rediscovered love, Tatsuko (Hiroko Ito), the front lights dim, plunging the room in darkness, and then relight to highlight only the two characters oblivious to their surroundings, which remain in darkness. A similar scene takes place later as Katsuta confronts Tatsuko over family honour. They are separated by the lighted lattices of the Japanese partition, which change from pale yellow to dark mustard, to black and back again to a succession of yellows, and finally to a violet indigo, and as emotions follow on emotions, so do the speed of change of the lighting – the visual equivalent of heart beats. In these scenes where characters are in a confined space, there is little physical movement except that of the changing lights.
The final tour de force is of course the fight scene in the gambling den where Katsuta kills two hoodlums. A dying hoodlum staggers against several white latticed screens which fall back to reveal a blood red background against which Katsuta stands swatched in white loin cloth. This is the symbolic use of red and white: the two colours that signify the code of honour of the old style yakuza, encapsulated in the saying, “The path of a true man leads to red clothes or white clothes,” that is, imprisonment (red) or death (white) to honour the family. Here we have the symbolic rather than the expressive use of colour. We see it again in Youth of the Beast where a yakuza boss savagely whips and then rapes his call-girl mistress – as they stumble out of the house and struggle about in a windstorm, the whole exterior scene is bathed in an unpleasant yellow: yellow for sex and pornography.
An artist who works with the symbolic and expressive properties of colour would tend to avoid minute gradations and instead favour a palette of sharp contrasts because this has greater psychological impact on the viewer. In Tokyo Drifter, even the grays are almost washed out of the monochromatic shots at the beginning of the film leaving mainly the extreme light-dark contrast of black and white. In Kanto Wanderer, the use of artificial lighting effects in natural surroundings gives it the feel of a stage play, and is one of the reasons why Suzuki’s films appear stylized rather than naturalistic. In Tokyo Drifter, his delight in geometric forms and the play of artificial light could be given free rein since much of the story takes place in the environment of nightclubs, bars and a disco. However, Suzuki sticks to one or two major colours in any shot, a principle that enhances colour’s expressive character. In this film, the scene literally transforms into a stage play with the last shootout taking place on the stage of the night-club. Here, Suzuki’s fondness for repetitive geometric forms – circles, triangles and zig-zags are utilized to the hilt – lend a precision to the gun fight that is hypnotic and curiously satisfying for the viewer.
Natural symbols: In his earlier films, one already sees the use of natural forms as symbols for non-visual forces. In Story of a Prostitute, for instance, Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) is a prostitute who, despite dire circumstances, constantly struggles to live on her own terms and to fulfil her innermost desires. She is often seen being buffeted by the wild winds sweeping over the plains of northern China – and putting up a fight. The Buddhist grotto where Harumi and her soldier lover hides, is a place of possible redemption. It is bathed in light shining in from potholes above like a blessing. We see this also in the closing scenes of Fighting Elegy as Michiko (Junko Asano), the innocent girl who is unable to consummate her love for the young hero, decides to leave for the nunnery, buffeted by wind and snow. The snow country sequence in Tokyo Drifter is another extraordinary setting against which Suzuki stages both gunfights and samurai swordfights, accentuating the bloody nature of the conflicts, while signifying the internal tribulations of the loner-hero Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) as he ponders on giri and ninjo (another key concept of the genre that enjoins individuals of the underworld into an exchange of favours based on mutual human feelings). The snow reflects Tetsu’s inner standing as a white knight (he’s the legendary knight with the charmed life who wants to “reform” and pull out of the yakuza) but who yet stands by the white-colour code of the mob (as propounded in Kanto Wanderer), indicative of his readiness to die for yakuza honour despite his own personal desire.
Other visual symbols: One of Suzuki’s most startling use of visual symbols – one that comes across with surreal effect – may be found in The Story of a Prostitute. Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa), the prostitute whose story is told, wishes that she could reduce her tormentor Narita (Isao Tamagawa), the Japanese staff officer, to shreds; momentarily, her wish is granted, Narita freezes upon entering her chamber and his image is literally torn to shreds, an optical illusion brilliantly realized on screen. The boldness of that image is predicated on the theme of the weak whose desire is to destroy the strong – a wish fulfillment granted by the power of moral strength. Harumi finds redemption through her love for a Japanese corporal – a case of mad love in the even madder circumstances of war that totally vindicates her stand, which accounts for that extraordinary sequence where she rushes out to the trenches against enemy fire so that she can be near her wounded lover. The melodramatic effect of this whole sequence is a case-study of how a director can impart, through striking visual images, a character’s human emotions trapped within oneself. Gate of Flesh is remarkable for its use of the visual motif of double exposures, particularly the image of Ibuki (Jo Shishido) whose face quite literally punctuates the thoughts of Maya and her sister-prostitutes in key scenes showing the women’s tumultuous relationships with each other and with their male interloper. Visual symbols abound in Suzuki’s pictures – the birds and butterflies in Branded to Kill which signify obsessive love, the kimonos worn by Katsuta to signify his adherence to old-fashioned yakuza values in Kanto Wanderer, and so on – but the point to note is that they rarely seem out of kilter with the general rhythm and mood of Suzuki’s cinema.
Sense of humour: In Kanto Wanderer, two clown-like characters lighten the mood: Tetsu, the dim-witted yakuza brother, and Hanako, the schoolgirl with the lascivious heart and a fondness for yakuza men. Both are out to have a good time and will never say no to any mischief. However, like the fools Shakespeare employs in his plays, they are capable of the most profound sayings. Suzuki’s sense of humour is evident throughout his works but his humour usually crosses the fine line into pastiche as well as satire – when humour turns to mockery. Critic Tadao Sato has pointed out that such irreverent humour is enrooted in gesaku – a Japanese tradition of farce and humour that film directors have drawn on since the early days of Japanese cinema. (4) Sato maintains that Suzuki’s humour is that of the counterculture. As I have argued with Branded to Kill, Suzuki is self-mocking and cynical about the genre and the state of the Japanese cinema run along the lines of a declining studio system (how else can one read between the lines of those scenes describing the hero’s vigil with Number One who sleeps with his eyes open and who urinates in his pants – affectations which are put down to acquiring “discipline” if one is to become top professional?). But there are moments when Suzuki’s humour becomes evocative, as in Fighting Elegy, where the young hero, Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) can’t get over his erections and his urges to jerk off as he is inducted into the culture of militarism and macho manhood. Suzuki’s sense of humour seeps through his use of music in the pop-ballad style, as with the irresistable “Ballad of the Tokyo Drifter”, Tetsu’s theme song that he himself sings in the snow before springing into action.
I don’t propose to go into an exhaustive account of Suzuki’s methods and techniques for it may rather defeat the purpose of allowing an audience to discover the director and be entertained by his skill, his sleight-of-hand, if you will, at narrative filmmaking. The above discussion is meant as an introduction to the style of Suzuki, his conduct of filmmaking, and the kind of issues and genres that he deals with. The retrospective of Suzuki in the 49th Melbourne International Film Festival should serve as a first step into Suzuki territory – which covers more ground than expected and where there are more riches to unravel. Other Suzuki films that are by all accounts essential viewing are: Voice in the Shadow (1958), Love Letter (1959), Go to Hell, Hoodlums (1960), Man with the Hollow-Tip Bullets (1961), The Bastard (1964), Flowers and the Angry Waves (1964), One Generation of Tattoos (1965), Carmen from Kawachi (1966), from the period of his employment with Nikkatsu; and Zigeunerweisen (1980), Heat-Haze Theatre (1985), and Yumeji (1991) from the comeback period marking his belated return to filmmaking after a long absence.
Without some knowledge of the early pictures and his later efforts, Suzuki will remain an enigma in modern cinema. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of an uneven career, beginning with employment in a cut-rate studio doing apparently routine work; then, a flowering of talent under adverse working conditions and lack of empathy with the studio boss; and then, obscurity. A revival followed after ten years during which he did some TV work and published a few books. So far, Suzuki’s late period as an independent filmmaker still seems improbable (he has also acted in a couple of films), and his reputation rests mainly on the films of the ’60s that represented his ire at the system. The further discovery of Suzuki will be bathed in an even more unpredictable light than the one that already shines on his range of works that have so far been exposed in the West. Suzuki himself would likely not have it any other way.
Seijun Suzuki Filmography
(born 1923, Tokyo, Japan)
1956: Cheers at the Harbour: Triumph in My Hands;
Pure Emotions of the Sea; Town of Devils.
1957: Floating Hotel; Eight Hours of Horror; Nude Girl with a Gun.
1958: Beauty of the Underworld; Voice in the Shadows; Blue Beasts.
1959: Blue Beasts 2; Love Letter; Passport to the Underworld; Naked Age.
1960: Take Aim at the Police Van; Beastly Sleep; Undercover O-Line; Everything is Crazy.
1961: Tokyo Knights; Bloody Channel; Go to Hell, Hoodlums!; Man with the Hollow-Tip Bullets; Reckless Boss; Million Dollar Match; New Wind Over the Mountain.
1962: Those Who Bet on Me; Teen Yakuza.
1963: The Bastard; Kanto Wanderer; Detective Office 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!; Youth of the Beast.
1964: Blood Doesn’t Forgive; Flowers and the Angry Waves; Gate of Flesh; Story of Bastards: Born Under a Bad Star.
1965: One Generation of Tattoos; The Story of a Prostitute.
1966: Carmen from Kawachi; Fighting Elegy; Tokyo Drifter.
1967: Branded to Kill.
1977: The Story of Grief and Sorrow.
1981: Heat-Haze Theatre.
1985: Capone Crying Hard; Lupin III: Legend of Babylon.
1993: Marriage (episode only).
- See Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 242
- Interview with Katherine Monk “Japanese Legend Sees Himself as Simple Chronicler,” The Vancouver Sun, Oct. 16, 1991
- See Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema (trans. Gregory Barrett) (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1982), p. 221-23