PRINT April 1999


Seijun Suzuki

URINE PICTURESQUELY RUNNING DOWN a hit man’s socks into his wing-tip shoes, a systematic pillow girl servicing an army battalion on the Manchurian frontier, a cold-blooded killer getting aroused sniffing at a pot of rice, a frustrated student pounding a piano’s keys with his erect penis.

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 unaccomodated emotion. Staging banal exploitation as hallucinogenic three-penny opera, he deployed imagery and editing for sensual alienation effects, modifying cinematic syntax as casually as a rock modifies stained glass. They’re the work of a middle-aged rug rat feverishly tunneling from the whorehouse to the art house—shades of John Zorn’s Spillane, a work whose dada’s-got-a-gun ambiance itself paid aural tribute to Suzuki. (The album cover even featured a cool rear-view shot of Suzuki regular Jo Shishido.)

In America, we’re only now getting a chance to catch up with Suzuki’s lost-in-baroque-spaces oeuvre—movies that seem even farther out today than when they were first made. Never granted a theatrical release in the US, Suzuki’s campy, somewhat atypical Tokyo Drifter (l966) and his electrifying 1967 jigsaw massacre Branded to Kill were officially released on video last year for the first time. Branded to Kill is the film that got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu studio on the grounds of being “incomprehensible,” no small feat in a film culture where the weird, the perverse, and the obscure have always been staples. With its black-and-silver-nitrate landscape of identity crisis and incipient nervous breakdown—gangland interpreted via dating-game theory: kinky assassin with ego crisis seeks like-minded sphinx fatale—the film suggests a delicately barbarous hybrid of two contemporaneous opposites, a Point Blank makeover of Persona.

Now four more Suzuki titles have reached the US market (also from Home Vision Cinema [(800) 826-3456]): Youth of the Beast (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964), Story of a Prostitute (1965), and Fighting Elegy (1966). All emerge from what Leslie Fiedler would call culture’s dirty “undermind,” where bad dreams fondle gothic forms and hysteria softly oozes through cracks in the hard imperial shell of manhood, militaristic sadism, and sublimation. Combining the off-key lilt of Sam Fuller’s two-fisted hyperbole with Jean-Luc Godard’s cartoon nihilism, penchant for enigmas, and delight in entropy for its own sake, these pictures are saturated in the squalid and the ridiculous. Alongside Papa Sam’s and Uncle Jean-Luc’s more excessive incursions into stylized brutality, they join a fetish-movie roll call marked by irony and obsession: Johnny Guitar, Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil, Videodrome, and Naked Killer, to name but a few.

Not to omit David Lynch: Lost Highway could easily pass for a belated, fleshcolor variation on Branded to Kill, with Lynch’s erotic-paranoid methodology closer to Suzuki’s grabbag poetic dissociation than the intellectualized sleaze of even Nagisa Oshima’s celebrated Cruel Story of Youth (1960). It is possible to argue that Suzuki represents the last word in Japanese schizoaesthetics, that idiomatic confusion of high and low, sleazeball content and contemplative form. But at the same time, the sticky tendrils of his work reach across territorial confines, or beneath them: The mad intersexuality of Branded to Kill feels less like homage than a makeshift cinematheque where clips from German Expressionism, French New Wave, Monogram shoot-outs, and softcore porn are scrambled and superimposed. It’s a cinemaniac’s fantasy version of film history—celluloid as an organism that knows no borders.

As Youth of the Beast opens, it looks to be a standard film-noir set up. Good cop and bad girl lie dead, investigators take the scene for an obvious murder-suicide. But in the corner of the black-and-white frame, there is a startling object: a single bright red rose. We’re thrust into Unpleasantville: an abrupt cut to garish teens dancing in the full-color street, a senseless beating, the roving thug next getting drunk with a bevy of bar girls. In typical Suzuki fashion, the antihero is suddenly isolated from the noise of the crowded bar, the camera now observing him from a soundproof room behind a two-way mirror, the aquarium effect conveying a barracuda’s fishbowl existence. Later, in the rival gang’s headquarters, the back wall is a movie screen on which American and Japanese B pictures are projected behind the marionette-like “real” gangsters, asynchronous clichés mocking the tough-guy puppet theater of the main action. (In Branded to Kill, the film-within-a-film projections have an even more surreal, he-Man Ray quality.) On one level, Youth of the Beast operates as a nasty, pachinko-machine burlesque of contorted triplecross plotting; on another, it uses the incongruous beauty of that rose as a spore gradually contaminating the rest of the picture with irrational feeling. A sandstorm howls outside a mobkingpin’s mansion as though blowing straight from his id. Later, the avenger slumps in a remote doorway, his apparent victory engulfed by desolation and inertia.

Sense is made and unmade experimentally, one camera movement, outrageous jump cut, or scenic flourish at a time: What counts in Tokyo Drifter is the insipid flaneur’s powder-blue jacket set in slim relief against the snow, a canary-yellow cabaret and the matching plumage of the canary who sings there, the loopy refrain of the title song. Fighting Elegy is as close as Suzuki comes to nominally coherent, seminaturalistic storytelling, a potent if rather pat demonstration of sexual repression feeding fascist idealism. Though it contains some of his most amazing images (the penis-pianist tickling the ivories; a call-and-response sequence that splits the screen in two), Fighting Elegy is also a film that a more reputable figure like Kon Ichikawa might have directed. Its relative austerity stands in subdued contrast to Tokyo Drifter’s rampant quirks, and while each movie has been trumpeted as definitive Suzuki, his best work grows out of more unstable motives, less fixed meanings.

Something like Gate of Flesh is by nature suspect: a nudie film as critique of the American Occupation, with a group of sex-pistol streetwalkers banding together against the straight world. Going both Godard and Zorn one better, the movie assumes the veneer of a neo-sadomasochistic musical. After the girl gang tortures a betrayer, they break into a cappella song as if auditioning fore the first Doo-Whip group. But that spectacular dissociation only intensifies the gloating survivalist glare these women shoot back at the camera. Especially Yumiko Nogawa, an erstwhile innocent who is raped by GIs and grows so hard-bitten she sexually assaults a well-meaning American priest: Her performance exudes a plaintive loathing that fits well with the black market comedy of a postwar fire sale, humanity 50 percent off. Nogawa returns in Story of a Prostitute as another feral working girl, a film whose voluptuous negativity goes much further. It brilliantly equates the invading soldiers—this time Japanese—with the prostitutes who serve them, as both Nogawa and the kneeling orderly she falls for are treated like dogs by the same tyrannical officer. There’s a priceless moment when she hatefully regards the commandant and he is held in freeze frame, then his image is torn in pieces as if being shredded by her gaze—if looks could kill indeed.

Framing anguish and ever-growing mounds of absurdity within the most eloquent of compositions (figures posed against voidlike doors, halls, and archways; Nogawa frantically running through a battlefield where tracer bullets suggest shooting stars), the director achieves a blend of tragic grandeur and rhapsodic farce. Like the inadvertent death that closes Branded to Kill on a spastic grace note, Story of a Prostitute’s randomness masks great passion. Insignificance here contains its own raw, nutty profundity: Surely the real world is just as disorderly as the one Suzuki builds out of pulp and lust and discarded archetypes, just not so insanely beautiful.

Howard Hampton writes regularly on film for Artforum.