The Pampers are in the diaper genie and the empties in the recycle bin - eight films total watched (oddly enough, none with a Quentin Tarantino introduction)…in short, my Seijun Suzuki marathon is over. I recalled seeing Tokyo Drifter and another Suzuki film years ago, and, for the most part, I was nonplused. The assessment at that time: all style, no substance. So I was not expecting terribly much from of these films except that they might be fun, if ultimately hollow. Yet, I wanted to dive into the yakuza films of the 60s and 70s, and Suzuki is the big name. The line-up:
Underworld Beauty (1958)
Youth of the Beast (1963)
Kanto Wanderer (1963)
Tattooed Life (1965)
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Fighting Elegy (1966)
Branded to Kill (1967)
Pistol Opera (2001)
With the exception of Tattooed Life, the earlier films tended to be better than the subsequent movies in an almost linear fashion, though each film was briskly paced and entertaining up until Pistol Opera. The story lines fell into one or two of the following categories: 1) an ex-con gets out of jail and has a score to settle before there’s redemption (funny how serving a jail sentence never settles anything in a movie); 2) a yakuza hit man tries to go straight but his past won’t let him (plot 27A, make it glossy….not much for the message boys); 3) hit men compete for the number one spot (who’s the best hit man you ever saw?); 4) the main character tries to do right unto his a) ex-partner or b) younger brother. Mix and match these, shake and bake, serve over rice and you’ve got the gist of the each movie.
Yet, despite this environmentally friendly recycling, Suzuki displays an admirably wide range. He is an inventive and playful director. Here’s a period piece, over there is a starkly shot black and white feature, and just beyond that is a vibrantly colorful film and in between is a mixture of both. He’s not afraid to make awkward cuts or unconventional time lapses, and he tends to be a wise guy with the double exposure. If I was nonplused before, I was very much plused this time around, even with a soiled diaper.
Underworld Beauty is straight noir and is considered to be before Suzuki hit his stride. Though it isn’t quite as stylistically thick as his later efforts, it is a solid movie and it’s hard think Suzuki wasn’t already hitting on all cylinders. I’m guessing that his studio was not yet offering him free reign by 1958 and Underworld Beauty is thus tempered. To me, this film is evidence that some restrictions on artistic freedom can actually benefit the final product. Underworld Beauty draws from the noir well and is a pure representation of the genre. Storylines 1 & 4 are used.
Youth of the Beast is Suzuki’s first collaboration with Jo Shoshido, a popular actor with remarkably big jawbones. I’m thinking this movie launched his popularity and he did countless other Suzuki pictures. By 1963, Suzuki’s style was pretty well defined and this film sports some impressive set designs that approach a James Bond level originality, if not budget. Look for storyline 4.
Kanto Wanderer chronicles the rivalry between two yakuza families who deal in gambling and the slave trade. The latter element is unnerving because the film treats the sex trade amorally and we witness the ruin of a pretty young and innocent girl without any narrative remorse. However, the movie as a whole is no downer.
Tattooed Life impressed me a great deal and is somewhat of a departure for Suzuki being set in the 20’s and in a village instead of Tokyo, though it’s still about the yakuza world (thus the title). Storylines 2 and 4 are in evidence here. Suzuki wisely resists over stylizing the period, but has enough details to make the feeling of the movie authentic. If Japanese textbooks shy away from Japan’s imperialist past, its art does not, as this movie proves with various allusions to Manchuria and the grand Japanese liberation of Asia. But this is hardly the focus of the picture, its merely some texture and the film deals more with yakuza rivalries than Japanese nationalism. This picture also has the hottest kimono clad girls in it as well (what a Hawks girl is doing behind the bar of the Sea of Japan, I don’t know).
Tokyo Drifter turned out to be better than what I had remembered. Though it is not as tight as the previous films, it’s repeating title song (still stuck in my head) helped maintain a common thread. By this time, Suzuki’s stylistic flourishes had taken over and outstripped his stories and the movies have less depth as a result. Still, the sets are good, the location shots are rich and the pace is fast enough to keep everything interesting. There are two main characters in Tokyo Drifter…the drifter and his fabulously baby blue suit! Storyline 2.
I’m at a loss to say anything about Fighting Elegy. It’s more story driven than Tokyo Drifter before it or Branded to Kill after it, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the Suzuki repertoire. It’s about a teenager in the 30s caught between his love for a girl and the fighting “code” he’s committed himself to. There’s some awkwardness in that all the high school aged kids are Suzuki regulars and look closer to their mid 30’s than they do to adolescence. I must admit that I watched most of the movie with my head cocked like a puppy trying to make sense of it all (something about the masturbation humor wasn’t quite clicking for me). Storyline 3 is used loosely (young man trying to prove himself).
Branded to Kill continues the evolution of Suzuki from evenly balance story teller to over-stylized director. Whereas certain elements in Tokyo Drifter made that movie cohesive, this film was pretty scattered using storyline 3. Shishido is back in this one as an ace killer that likes the smell of rice a little too much (really). Will he become the #1 killer? Will it matter? Not really. There’s enough in the movie to make it interesting, but that doesn’t include the story itself. The spirit of the film reminded me of Tarantino in that it is often clever, but when you boil it all down it is reduced to mere vapors. Also of note were a few specific instances that Jim Jarmusch lifted and used in Ghost Dog, namely, a butterfly thwarting an assassination attempt (I think it was a bird in Ghost Dog) and a scene where Jo Shishido shoots a man through a sink drain. This film is also generous with the nudity. Incidentally, something about this movie and Tokyo Drifter made the Japanese film industry blackball Suzuki for about ten years or so – though I’m sketchy on the details.
Jump to 2001 with Pistol Opera – actually, you jump ahead, I'll hang out in the mid sixties for awhile more. Pistol Opera.....great title, nice credit sequence, but the rest of it was a mess. It’s a sorta loose remake of Branded to Kill, but it’s longer and lacks virtually anything interesting. The film is boldly colorful at points, yet the direction is so contrived that it is awkward and almost unwatchable. What little story exists (storyline 3) is hare-brained at best and makes little sense when scrutinized. As adventurous as Suzuki is through all of his movies, he’s generally straightforward in his narrative, but this movie jumps around so much and holds some scenes to the point where I, the viewer, felt like I was being jerked around. Strangely enough, this film was shot in 4:3 ratio (it may have been made for television, though I’m not sure). I'm simply at a loss at what Suzuki was thinking. But who knows, I may think this film was worthless now, but bury it for a few thousand years and it will become priceless.
All in all I was overjoyed with these movies and I'm glad that I took the time to get to know Suzuki a little better. Of course, what I covered was only a fraction of his body of work.
Next on the agenda, other yakuza films, including: Afraid to Die (staring the famously dead novelist, Yukio Mishima), Blind Beast, Blackmail Is My Life, Street Mobster, Black Tight Killers and Bloody Territories. Down the pike is a mysterious 6 DVD set called the Yakuza Papers. Will this be the Godfather of yakuza entertainment? Doubtful, but it should be fun nonetheless.