Pop Eye

Nick Pinkerton on “Action and Anarchy: The Films of Seijun Suzuki”

Seijun Suzuki, Kagero-za, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 139 minutes.

WHEN THE CINEMATIC whatsits of Seijun Suzuki were rediscovered by American cinephiles in the late 1990s, through both a touring retrospective and the Criterion Collection’s home video releases of his noir-inflected signature films Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), the typical reaction was one of giddy bafflement. Even if we weren’t quite sure what these pop-addled movies were up to, we knew they weren’t sitting still.

Now Suzuki is on the move again, with a 35-mm print-heavy retrospective beginning November 6 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, coming from the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC, which have also published a new book, Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, by Tom Vick. The stated intention of Vick’s book is “to rescue Suzuki from his reputation in the West as a figurehead of ‘extreme’ cinema”—analogous to “batshit crazy,” the most insipid film chat designation this side of “slow cinema”—and to cast his subject in the light of a purposeful, innovative artist, alive and vibrating with the historical currents of the times in which he was working.

Suzuki cuts a figure every bit as striking as his films; with his white Vandyke and black-rimmed glasses, he somewhat resembles a Japanese Colonel Sanders. Today he is ninety-two years old but, according to Vick, too ill to submit to extended interviews. His last completed feature, Princess Raccoon, was released in 2005 and seems likely to be the end of his nearly fifty-year creative run. He was born in Tokyo as Seitaro Suzuki, in 1923, at the tail end of the Taishō Period which, with all its frenzied westernization, would be the setting of his return-to-deform trilogy, Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991). He enrolled in the film department of Hirosaki University after failing his entrance exam to Tokyo University, but his education—like all of Japanese life—was interrupted by World War II, in which he served in the Imperial Japanese Army. (Macho prewar martial culture and postwar anarchy would be the subjects of two of his finest films, Fighting Elegy [1966] and Gate of Flesh [1964].) Returned from the front, Suzuki went to work as (in his words) “a relatively worthless assistant director” at Shochiku studios. When Japan’s oldest production company, Nikkatsu studios, resumed production in 1954 after a hiatus begun during the war years, they lured Suzuki into their employ. Two years later he made his first film as a director, and he would work at a feverish pace for Nikkatsu’s B-movie unit until 1968, when he was dismissed by company president Kyusaku Hori for making “incomprehensible films,” with Branded to Kill the final insult.

In fairness to Mr. Hori, Suzuki’s strength was never in the placid, dutiful delivery of plot, though his handling of a relatively straightforward suspense like Passport to Darkness (1959) proves that he could play by the rules when he chose to do so. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stylistic exuberance of Branded was the apotheosis of a process of ever-bolder experimentation that had been underway throughout much of Suzuki’s time at Nikkatsu. In part, this was an act of creative defiance by a bright, restless assembly-line worker tasked with rapidly turning out identical industrial product, in this case popular gangster films—in 1961 alone, five movies bearing Suzuki’s imprimatur saw release. Rather than place himself in obeisant service to rote, prosaic plotlines, Suzuki instead approached his works as exercises in uncommon visual expression. His cinematography—usually widescreen, and the work of frequent coconspirators Shigeyoshi Mine and Kazue Nagatsuka—favors slashing diagonals, vertical tracking movements that pass through the walls of diorama-like sets, and startling God’s-eye-view perspectives. Cuts are pronounced and jarring, either unsubtle rhetorical points—delivery of the line “Ever slept with a man?” followed by the flag of the occupying US filling the screen in Gate of Flesh—or punchy inserts of close-ups from long shots, in a manner reminiscent of American art brutalist Sam Fuller.

Seijun Suzuki, Gate of Flesh, 1964, 35 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Almost unique to Suzuki is his idiosyncratic use of double exposures, either to provide perspective on a character’s inner life or to hold two evenly balanced counterpoised images in the same frame, his own version of the split-screen technique that was slowly gaining popularity in contemporary Hollywood. He would routinely construct complex systems of color symbolism, as with the mixed-medium color/black-and-white in Youth of the Beast (1963) or the chroma-coded prostitutes in Gate of Flesh, then deliberately violate the rules that he had created. Real locations were freely mixed with constructed sets that made no pretext of veracity, lit through highly artificial means (spotlights, theatrical gels) that ostentatiously proclaimed the staginess of the proceedings rather than attempting to cover it up. For Vick, one of Suzuki’s most distinct signatures is his employ of techniques that call attention to the materiality of the film screen as a flat plane giving the illusion of depth—very much in line with Clement Greenberg’s idea of the canvas surface as the subject of modernist painting. In both Carmen from Kawachi (1966) and Yumeji, we even find instances of the screen literally appearing to be used as a canvas, while screens-within-screens proliferate in Suzuki’s filmography—either the soundproof nightclub office in Youth of the Beast or the 16-mm snuff screening in Branded to Kill.

Despite his eventual, acrimonious split with Nikkatsu, for most of the 1960s Suzuki found a salubrious working environment at the studio, gathering around himself a gang of trusted collaborators. Among them were Joe Shishido, a contract actor whose surgically augmented cheekbones gave him an air of toothachey surliness and comic-book angularity, who stars in titles Youth of the Beast, Tattooed Life (1965), and Branded to Kill, or Shishido’s costar in Gate of Flesh, Yumiko Nogawa, who reprised her role as an indomitable working girl in Story of a Prostitute (1965) and Carmen from Kawachi. (Suzuki shared his concept of the prostitute as a repository of wartime Japanese history with onetime Nikkatsu stablemate Shohei Imamura, whose films Suzuki’s sometimes played double bills with.)

The confederate most crucial to completing the Suzukian style, however, was art director Takeo Kimura, with whom he first worked on 1963’s The Bastard. I have not watched much of Suzuki’s output from his first five years as a director, which includes such sensationally and salaciously titled items as Satan’s Town (1956) and Young Breasts (1958), and the Film Society’s program can only go so far toward correcting this oversight. Those early works that I have seen find Suzuki tentatively pushing the envelope early on—the freeze frames or bizarre rear projection of a Yomiuri Giants baseball game in scandal-sheet thriller Smashing the O-Line (1960), for example. When Suzuki and Kimura began working together, however, they commenced to double-daring each other to go further and further onto a creative precipice, moving from pastiche to parody in Tokyo Drifter, a yakuza picture with the palette of an Elvis movie, featuring Tetsuya Watari crooning as he crosses snowy wastes in a powder-blue suit and white patent leather shoes, and egregious hair dryer product placements. (Working on a parallel track to the Anglo-American pop artists, Suzuki was acutely aware of the ubiquity of advertising language in new, democratic Japan.)

Suzuki and Kimura were perhaps the earliest and most radical in their application of avant-garde theatrical effects to genre filmmaking, though they were by no means the last—other instances include Shunya Itō and Toshiya Fujita, director of the Stray Cat Rock and Lady Snowblood series, who would star as a tightly comported university professor in Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen. This, the film that properly began the second act of Suzuki’s career, finds his tendency to luxuriate in kink intact (one character has a sexual fixation on bones, and the tonguing of an open eyeball is the movie’s erotic centerpiece), though it also displays a more solemn side of Suzuki’s art, a film of twilit mahogany sitting rooms that slowly ratchets up the tension to an unnerving climax. He would never after return to the frenzied, electrified creative pace of his mid-’60s creative outburst—but neither would he be tamed.

“Action and Anarchy: The Films of Seijun Suzuki” runs November 6–17 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.