Thursday 28 July 2016

A Young Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers Seijun Suzuki

Seijun Suzuki
This week’s streamed Fandor/Criterion viewing came from a collection of Japanese crime stories. Most weeks the selection contains at least one movie I’ve been hoping to cross off a list, or from a favourite director, but this week the films were all unknown to me. I chose to watch three films by Seijun Suzuki, who is not a director I’ll seek out too fervently in the future.

I watched Take Aim at the Police Van (Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1960), Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1966) and Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1967) and found that Suzuki is consistent, if nothing else. I found the plots of all three of these yakuza films more or less incomprehensible, with the basic premise dashed out at a rapid pace in the opening minute and then completely ignored. 

These are style experiments, not stories. This bothered me over the course of a single film, and became truly irritating as I watched two more and found them to share the same problem.

With the plot a tertiary concern at best, Suzuki’s films live and die by their sense of style, and they deliver the goods on that front. Take Aim at the Police Van (my favourite of the three films, and easily the most coherent) closely resembles the film noir efforts of American film makers in the preceding two decades, complete with faked deaths and mysterious women linked to underworld figures. The film is in black and white, and employs quick camera movements and rapid editing to match the onscreen violence.

Tokyo Drifter avoids the mimicry of the earlier film, as the focus becomes the use of colour. For the most part, the action here takes place in snow-covered exteriors or in rooms dominated by a single bright colour, with the final confrontation set in a gigantic pure-white room. The film’s visuals are the most impressive of these three, with the vibrant colours adding a touch of surrealism. Some research tells me the film was intended as a parody of the yakuza genre, which is not something I picked up on while watching it. It’s essentially just a series of pretty action scenes.

Branded to Kill was my least favourite of the three films, though perhaps only because I was growing weary of these after watching the first two. Here Suzuki returns to black and white for the story of a hitman, though he employs a number of unusual visual gimmicks, with elements of animation introduced to the frame. Again, the film is intended as something of a parody and again that wasn’t obvious to me while watching it. Apparently the bizarre style of this film was enough to get Suzuki fired from his position at production company Nikkatsu.

Stories of the producers’ frustrations make me wish I liked these films more. I want the director to be the misunderstood artistic hero, and the producers to be the money-hungry Philistines. But if they were wrong, so am I (very possible). I’d like to get hold of a Suzuki film with a good commentary and have someone explain to me what I’m missing here.

Editor’s Note: Suzuki is indeed a strange beast to discover. The shock of his discovery which took some time after the Nikkatsu films were screened in Japan got a huge kick along when a major retrospective was presented at a long ago Edinburgh Film Festival in the 80s and which was accompanied by a major monograph by Tony Rayns. It reverberated for many years. A mini-retrospective at an early BIFF drew good crowds and was as far as I know the first sighting of the director’s work in these parts though at around the same time Philip Brophy curated a selection for MIFF. 

For an excellent introduction to Suzuki’s work I would suggest readers go to to this essay on the Criterion website by Tony Rayns. Happy discovering of this major figure in Japanese cinema.

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