Feature by: Ian Johnston
Posted on: 06 June 2006
Reviews: Branded to Kill
Reviews: Fighting Elegy
Reviews: Youth of the Beast
It’s not often that mainstream film critics and the enthusiastic Asian cultfilm fanboys (are there any fangirls?) are in agreement, but with the case of Seijun Suzuki there is a remarkable convergence of opinion, a shared acknowledgement of the inventiveness and exuberance of his work. Although, it has to be said, that judgement is essentially based on a viewing of a line of mostly pulp yakuza pictures that Suzuki made for Nikkatsu Studios up to 1968. And, further, it’s based on what’s currently available on DVD of those pictures, namely: Underworld Beauty, Youth of the Beast, Kanto Wanderer, Gate of Flesh, Tattooed Life, Story of a Prostitute, Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy, Branded to Kill. All in all, only nine of Suzuki’s first forty to forty-two films (filmographies vary).
Still, this thin sliver is enough to give us a sense of Suzuki’s concerns and — more importantly — his style. Suzuki was a contract director on an industrial production line, who took the time-honoured route of serving first as an assistant director before Nikkatsu promoted him to fully-fledged director in 1956. From then, he churned out a stream of genre films (in 1961 he made seven), mostly yakuza flicks, although Gate of Flesh, Story of a Prostitute, and Fighting Elegy represent his own way of reflecting upon Japanese history. But whatever the genre, Suzuki’s films display a consistent and ever-expanding play with the films’ form: composition, lighting, colour, editing, and so on. The more conventionally-pulp yakuza pictures (conventional, before things blasted off into the stratosphere with Branded to Kill) in particular seem as if they’re exploded from within through Suzuki’s stylistic tics. These run the full range, from symbolic use of colour, unnatural variations in lighting, stylised acting, and highly-crafted compositions, through to parodic humour, sudden and abrupt shifts in tone, shock cuts and perplexing ellipses. Famously, this undermining of genre expectation through style resulted in Suzuki’s firing after Branded to Kill by the head of the Nikkatsu studio for the offence of producing “incomprehensible” pictures.
This now led to a period of much slower production, work for TV and the occasional feature (although it’s often portrayed by writers and by Suzuki himself as a forced ten-year break from filmmaking) before his linking up with theatre producer Genjiro Arato led to a return to higher-profile works in the form of Zigeunerweisen, the first of the so-called Taisho Trilogy. This independent production had to follow an independent distribution strategy as well—famously, it toured Japan city-by-city, screening in an inflatable mobile dome. And it won over both public and critics, garnering an array of prizes and awards.
The Arato-Suzuki partnership produced this first film Zigeunerweisen in 1980, a follow-up Kagero-za a year later, and then after ten years Yumeji in 1991, the three of which form through their shared themes and setting the Taisho Trilogy. The trilogy gets its name from the Taisho era (the period of the Emperor Taisho’s reign from 1912 to 1926), a time of increasing democratisation and the assimilation of many forms of Western culture, ranging from dress and furnishings to literature and art. It also led to the inevitable question of the relationship and balance between more traditional Japanese forms and the new modern ones. Two important Taisho artistic figures, the fiction writer Hyakken Uchida and the artist-poet Takehisa Yumeji, are the source for two of Suzuki’s films: Zigeunerweisen is based on one of Uchida’s novels, and Yumeji is the protagonist of Yumeji.
This is a long way from the world of the Nikkatsu yakuza pictures, and this is the major surprise for anyone coming to the Taisho Trilogy with expectations formed by the likes of Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. This is particularly so when encountering the first film Zigeunerweisen which has all the trappings of a quality art film: the slow, languid pace; the more-than-two-hours length; the careful recreation in costume and interior setting of 1920s Japan; the interest in character rather than plot; the time-frame extended over many years bridged by voice-over; the general concern with High Culture. Of course, art film expectations are as much undermined here as genre expectations were in the sixties, not only through disruptive aesthetic strategies, but also by the way dream narrative starts seeping into the story; and Kagero-za and Yumeji then develop this dream narrative into the underlying narrative structure. But the most important point is that these three films operate beyond genre. Simply because ghosts appear in all three, it makes no sense to refer — as some writers do — to these films as “horror” or “ghost” movies. Essentially, no distinction is made between the supernatural elements and the “reality”-based ones, and this is particularly true of the trilogy’s second and third films. It’s all part of one uniformly unfolding dream narrative.
There remains the question of how successful the films in the trilogy are, particularly as they’re so different from the Nikkatsu films. Structuring a story from one or multiple dream narratives is a tricky balancing act. Examples like Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, or some of Raoul Ruiz’s films such as Genealogies of a Crime or Three Lives and Only One Death are successes because of the way each film’s underlying story provides a firm narrative structure for the dream elements. But Suzuki’s films are more similar to the less successful results of a film like Alain Guiraudie’s No Rest for the Brave, where successive dream narratives endlessly recycle to wearying effect. Each one of the Taisho Trilogy lays a claim for being the most successful of the three: Zigeunerweisen for having the stronger, more realistic narrative drive; Kagero-za for its wholehearted embrace of the dream world; Yumeji for its very different look, for the way it uses the aesthetics of the Japanese interior (the horizontal and vertical lines, the different planes of enclosed space) as the structuring device for its visual style. But in the end there’s also a sense that Suzuki may have got himself a bit too much freedom. As each of the individual reviews make clear, and in spite of all the incidental interests and felicities, things do drag on rather too much in each of the Taisho Trilogy films and ultimately I can’t help feeling that Suzuki really needed the productive constraints that conventional genres placed on his drive to formal experimentation.