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Seijun Suzuki (1923–2017)

Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, who blended Pop Art and the Yakuza to create unconventional crime dramas, died in a hospital in Tokyo on February 13. The ninety-three-year-old director’s death was announced by Nikkatsu, the studio that famously fired him in 1967 for making Branded to Kill, which is now considered a classic.

Born in 1923, Suzuki served in Japan’s Imperial Navy during World War II and survived being shipwrecked twice, before joining the Shochiku studio as an assistant director in 1948. The newly reopened Nikkatsu hired him in 1954 and he remained there for twelve years producing forty films for the studio. Nikkatsu fired Suzuki after he directed the visually striking Tokyo Drift (1966) and then the black-and-white film Branded to Kill shortly after, both of which are widely celebrated by other filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. The studio had tried unsuccessfully to get Suzuki to tame his avant-garde visions for the films, which were intended to be straightforward gangster flicks.

Suzuki won a settlement after filing an action for unfair dismissal against the studio, but was then unable to get work. “They said my film was incomprehensible,” Suzuki told The Guardian in 2006. “It didn’t matter whether I thought it was a good film. I couldn’t disagree. I just had to take it. And once Nikkatsu sacked me, none of the other film companies would hire me.”

Suzuki would eventually make a comeback with films such as A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977) and Zigeunerweisen (1980). He made his last feature film, the musical Princess Raccoon (2005), at the age of eighty-two. Commenting on the filmmaker’s oeuvre, in the April 1999 issue of Artforum, Howard Hampton wrote: “There’s no business like Japanese show business, at least as practiced by ’60s B-movie savant Seijun Suzuki. Favoring violent non sequiturs and theatrical artifice over narrative continuity and genre boundaries, he hit audiences with hot and cold blasts of displacement, playfully tactile uses of image and sound, mind games masquerading as hand jobs. In a dizzy succession of heedless low-budget vehicles, Suzuki transformed cheap thrills into outbursts of unaccommodated emotion.”