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Beginning in the 1950s, Japan experienced a “youth explosion,” and its film studios, back in business after wartime idleness, churned out film after film appealing to this new market. Most of the cookie-cutter flicks made by studios like Toei, Shochiku, and Nikkatsu were pastiches of the U.S. gangster movie, bowdlerized to include traditional notions of yakuza honor and chivalry.
No one expected invention in these movies. And so, they posed a challenge for director Seijun Suzuki, who once declared, “I make movies about things I do not understand, yet wish to.” Thanks to Nikkatsu’s insatiable hunger for market share, Suzuki made over 50 films for the studio from 1957 to 1971. He carved a niche in its yakuza film stable, where he toyed with the genre’s conventions and created stunning visual tableaus. In an interview with Midnighteye.com in 2001, Suzuki said, “It’s not really the genre I’m interested in, but the character of the yakuza or a killer. They wander between life and death… They live very near death, so we can describe how they die, where they die, when they die.”
As a B-movie director, his work went largely unnoticed at the time, but it has received a well-deserved renaissance within the last few years, thanks mostly to Hong Kong action directors citing his influence. Suzuki’s plots speak to the tensions between post-war Japan’s growing economic power and fading traditions. They also reflect the director’s own conflicted loyalties: pursuing artistry while bound by low budgets and expectations of a “salary man” director, expected to complete as many as four films a year.
Home Video Entertainment has recently released three of Suzuki’s works on DVD. Each film has received a loving transfer, with highly stylized menu screens worthy of Suzuki’s invention. The color has been marvelously preserved, so much so that it puts digital transfers of other films from the same era to shame. Suzuki’s palette ranged from stark primary colors to the subtle use of blocking and silence to convey mood. Thanks to the craft put into these DVDs, the viewer can enjoy both ends of Suzuki’s range, and every gradation in between.
Underworld Beauty (1958), the earliest of Suzuki’s films to see a U.S. video release, introduces a theme he would revisit often: the lone wolf attempting to make amends for his past, a debt he’s usually unable to repay. Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima), just out of prison, wants to sell diamonds he has stashed away, in order to pay back his friend Mihara (Hideaki Nitani), who took a bullet for him. After the deal goes bad, Miyamoto’s efforts to recover the gems are thwarted at every turn, by his backstabbing former boss; by Akiko (Mari Shiraki), Mihara’s wild sister; and by Arita (Shinsuke Ashida), her artist boyfriend, who swipes the diamonds out from under everyone’s noses.
At times the script is strained, as when Arita cuts open Mihara’s stomach to retrieve the diamonds (which he swallowed just before he died in a convenient fall from a rooftop). But the film is saved by the starkness of its noir-ish cinematography, and Suzuki’s marvelously staged set pieces. Scenes in a mannequin factory recall the final moments of Stanley Kubrick’s debut film, Killer’s Kiss, as the camera pans the eerie fake body parts that litter Arita’s studio, echoing the truly damaged human beings that occupy the movie’s landscape.
In the Midnighteye.com interview, Suzuki professed, “In my films, time and place are nonsense.” This attitude is vividly on display in Home Vision’s two other DVDs, Kanto Wanderer (1963) and Tattooed Life (1965), in which plot remains subservient to imagery and brilliant use of color. Both films seem to exist neither in the past nor in their present, but some amalgam of the two completely of Suzuki’s own design.
Kanto Wanderer concerns the meaningless rivalry of two yakuza gangs clinging to traditionalist values, and the soldier Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi), caught between them. The yakuza continue to wield swords and kimonos even as their illicit businesses serve a new class of businessmen: they drink beer instead of sake and wear business suits instead of robes. Katsuta pines not for some femme fatale, but for the plain wife of a professional gambler who works for the gang feuding with his own. His obsession and the yakuza code of honor lead him to commit two murders that prove to be pointless. The murder scene is the film’s crowning moment: bodies fall against fragile Japanese screens, revealing a backdrop of red so brilliant that it burns Katsuta’s silhouette onto the viewer’s retina.
In Tattooed Life, Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) takes the blame for a murder committed by his younger brother, Kenji (Kotobuki Hananomoto). The two attempt to hide by joining a mining crew in a small town, but their past haunts them. Tetsu refuses to bathe with the other men, or take off his shirt in front of the woman he loves, for fear of revealing the intricate tattoos that mark him as yakuza. Eventually, he must avenge Kenji’s death. In the film’s perfectly choreographed final scenes, Tetsu works his way through a house full of his former comrades, now enemies. He throws back screen after screen, while the camera pans to show us the raised swords that lie waiting in the darkness. When the battle begins, Tetsu alternately dispatches all comers with his katana and lights up the darkness with red flashes from his revolver. When the smoke clears, he stumbles out into a snowy night, bloody and beaten
The film’s ending will look familiar to those who have seen Kill Bill Vol. 1, although, considering Quentin Tarantino’s referential approach to filmmaking, it’s hard to say whether he kited this from Suzuki or from the legion of directors who borrowed from Suzuki. (In an interview at Japattack.com, Tarantino says, “I’m not inspired by [Suzuki’s] movies as a whole, but by certain shots and just his willingness to just completely experiment, to try and get images that are really cool or psychedelic.”)
“Psychedlic” is perhaps not the best word for Suzuki’s imagery; to be sure, his colors are sometimes so ostentatious that they verge on melodrama. But he was also able to linger on small, silent moments, to zoom in on a deck of cards, or the label on a bottle of beer, and say just as much. In Underworld Beauty, one scene shows Miyamoto pursuing Akiko through the twisting alleys of a city’s back streets. The scene is shot from extremely far away—miles, it seems—to take in all of the maze that surrounds the two fleeing figures, who are barely discernible against their urban backdrop. With no sound heard at all, it brings to mind old Chinese and Japanese paintings that depicted the vastness of nature to show the ultimate insignificance of man. Suzuki knew that, in order to say great things, sometimes an artist needs to work small.