Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 06 June 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Features: Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy
Reviews: Branded to Kill
Reviews: Fighting Elegy
Reviews: Youth of the Beast
Zigeunerweisen, the first of Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy, is in the first place a literary adaptation, marking it as quite distinct from those sixties’ genre works that made Suzuki’s name. It’s taken from a novel, The Song of Sarasate, by Hyakken Uchida, a twentieth-century modernist novelist. (Movie trivia: Uchida is the central character and literary source for Kurosawa’s last film Madadayo.) The style of the film, all slow pace, lengthy shots, character- rather than action-based, classical music, and careful recreation in costume and setting of 1920s Japan, all assert Zigeunerweisen as a work of art cinema.
The audience-surrogate is the thoroughly bourgeois and Westernised Toyojiro Aochi. Dressed in sombre Western suits and sporting a dapper little moustache, this professor of German calls to mind other academics from classic Japanese cinema, the husband-scholar of Ozu’s Will You Forgive Her? or Professor Yagihara in Kurosawa’s No Regrets For My Youth. Vacationing by the seaside, he runs into a former fellow-professor Nakasogo, in every respect his opposite, the monster from the Id to his reasoned respectability. Nakasogo is all rabid impulse, wild and uncontrollable. Our first sight of him is as a bearded vagabond, in a loose black kimono that slips on and off his shoulders, and chomping on a corn cob, as he’s almost lynched by a local mob on the beach as a suspected serial rapist. (Aochi rescues him by asserting their bourgeois status, and seems quite nonplussed by the accusations of Nakasogo’s criminality—probably sharing in the indulgence that so many male Japanese filmmakers, Suzuki probably among them, give to the act of rape, all too often romanticising it as a sign of untrammelled vitality.)
This reunion between the two leads to an encounter with a beautiful local geisha, Ko-ine, with both Nakasogo and the married Aochi falling for her. The long spun-out narrative, stretching over several years with gaps and omissions in between, follows Nakasogo’s subsequent marriage to Sono, the spitting image of Ko-ine (played by the same actress); Nakasogo’s later abandonment of Sono; Sono’s death; Ko-ine’s reappearance to take the place of Sono; and Nakasogo’s own death. There also appears to be a liaison between Nakasogo and Aochi’s wife Shuko, but Suzuki’s narration is a slippery, hard-to-grasp thing, and it’s never entirely clear where the line between dream and reality lies, and whose fantasy — if fantasy it is — this may be. The latter part of the film, dealing with Aochi and Ko-ine after Naakasogo’s death, has an even greater sense of leaving unclear how we are to read what we see. It’s all rather intangible, in the same way that Pablo Sarasate’s violin piece that gives its name to the film is. Aochi and Nakasogo ponder the significance of the words Sarasate mumbles on the recording, but they, and we, remain none the wiser.
This may sound as if Suzuki has abandoned his delirious and near-incoherent yakuza pictures of the past for the gentle rhythms of an albeit ambiguous art cinema. But there are jarring, disruptive features here, too, above all in a trio of blind itinerant musicians who interrupt or form a background to the action in the first part of the film. This trio of older musician, his much younger wife and their servant/her lover is a reflection, in a coarse, bawdy tone, of the other triangles of the film: Aoichi-Nakasogo-Ko-ine, Aochi-Nakasogo-Sono, and Aochi-Nakasogo-Shuko. Their slapstick antics and fearless mugging to the camera culminate in a scene where husband and lover, buried up to their waists in sand, flail at each other with long sticks until jets of blood spurt from the young man’s skull; and they continue striking at each other until both disappear into the sand. Your appreciation of this will depend on your taste for this loud, boorish style of humour—personally, I don’t care for it much and found it worked against the tone of the rest of the film. Now, it is true that we could read that final blood-spurting scene as Nakasogo’s vision (it’s the visualisation of his story to Aochi, which Ko-ine immediately refutes) but there’s still a sense that Suzuki has too many ideas — and a willingness to throw them all into a 148-minute film — for his own good.
What’s really striking about Zigeunerweisen is the radical nature of his construction of spatial relationships within and between shots. It’s as if he took Ozu’s creative aesthetic of the mismatch/”crossing the line” and racked it up to a paroxysmic level. Take as an example a conversation between Ko-ine and Nakasogo very late in the film. This is presented as a series of separate profile shots at varying distances of each looking screen-right, with a sudden and very brief reverse track from Ko-ine revealing that Nakasogo’s true point-of-view is in fact that of the camera; after which, Nakasogo’s counter-shots now have him looking screen-left until he moves “forward” (further screen-left) to come up behind Ko-ine, now also looking screen-left. In other words, eyeline directions and spatial relationships are completely scrambled, to the extent that at times it’s impossible to map out in our minds the positioning of characters in a particular physical setting.
It’s a very productive technique, allied to an aestheticism of image, a very precise sense of composition, whether it’s a close-up of white teapot and cups and saucers on a table, of the play of empty against occupied space in the film’s many long and medium-long shots. (Incidentally, the balance you see in these shots would tend to suggest that the DVD’s full-frame presentation is the right one, even if the back of the case claims it should be 1.66:1.)
And yet… As fascinating as the style may be, what in the end are we left with? The mistake may have been to have grounded the film in what seemed to be a novelistic recreation of a 1920s setting, whereas in fact what we have is an intentionally confused and confusing narrative. By the time it spirals into near incomprehensibility — what is reality and dream here? who is alive and who dead? — there’s a sense that Suzuki is simply beyond caring about answering any of these questions. And in the process, with its slow pace and willful obscurity, he’s lost a fair part of the audience along the way.