Thursday 26 October 2017

Seijun Suzuki at the Art Gallery of NSW - A Japanese Film Festival retrospective - A further glance at ZIEGEUNERWEISEN (Japan, 1980)

Kawakita Kashiko
Let me take you back in time. Its 1980 and on a first trip to Tokyo as MFF Director I have been taken under the wing of Madame Kashiko Kawakita and her daughter Kazuko Shibata. They are the souls of kindness, sending Madame Kawakita’s car to pick me up at my hotel, organising screenings, shepherding me from one appointment to the next in a city where it is really hard to find your way anywhere. Earlier Madame Kawakita had helped with the Japanese entries for the 1980 MFF and in particular had got us a print of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Chikamatsu Monogatari (Japan, 1954) for what would be the film’s first Australian screening. A couple of thousand people packed out the Palais for the occasion.

Then an invitation. A preview of a new film by a veteran director who has not made a film for many years. Between 1956 and 1967 Seijun Suzuki, who had started his career at Shochiku, made at least 43 films for the Nikkatsu studio.  Many have still not been outside Japan. But this was something new and different

Suzuki Seijun
Nikkatsu’s Wikipedia entry has this succinct information about its activity from the early 50s onwards: “… in 1951, Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori began construction of a new production studio. A graduate of Tokyo Keizai University, Hori had joined the company in 1951 after quitting his initial employment as the manager of Sanno Hotel (now rebuilt as Sanno Park Tower). Under Hori, Nikkatsu is considered to have had its "Golden Age". The company began making movies again in 1954. Many assistant directors from other studios, including Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki from Shochiku, moved to Nikkatsu with the promise of advancement to full director status within one or two years. Suzuki made dozens of films for Nikkatsu from 1956 onwards, developing an increasingly inventive visual style, but was controversially fired following the release of his 40th, Branded to Kill (1967), which Hori deemed "incomprehensible".

“The company made a few samurai films and historical dramas but by 1960 had decided to devote its resources to the production of urban youth dramas, comedy, action and gangster films. From the late 1950s to 1971 they were renowned for their big budget action movies designed for the youth market. They employed such stars as Yujiro Ishihara, Akira Kobayashi, Joe Shishido, Tetsuya Watari, Ruriko Asaoka, Chieko Matsubara and, later, Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji. Director Shōhei Imamura began his career there and between 1958 and 1966 made for them such notable films as Pigs and Battleships (1961), The Insect Woman (1963) and The Pornographers (1966).”

I regret to say I knew none of this at the time when the preview of Ziegeunerwiesen (Japan, 1980) was offered. Then again it’s not as if Suzuki was on the tip of everyone’s lips. Noel Burch, prior to Ziegeunerweisen appearing, in his “To the Distant Observer” passes him by with the remark “Several film-makers who work in a manner related to Oshima (Suzuki Seijun in particular) function entirely within the codes of mass-audience cinema.” Right, up to that point, though later Burch mentions “a great many directors…(who) have chosen, for a variety of personal motives, who have chosen to ‘subvert’ the popular genres from within the framework of the major companies, particularly Nikkatsu and Toei…”.

I was told that “Donald will be there” and just before it started an elegant older man was introduced to me as Donald Richie and we sat together and watched the movie. Whether I was overcome by sleep or incomprehension or both I don’t recall. Probably both. Whatever, at the end I attempted to engage Donald in a conversation about what the film meant but was met only with a gnomic judgement. It was, he said, a throwback to a European art movement from the early part of the century. I can’t remember what term he used but it wasn’t surrealism or Dada. Knowledge of this unlocked the film’s meaning. With that Donald suggested lunch and we went off to a nearby Department store and the restaurant on the top floor. “There is only one dish on the menu worth ordering and we’ll both have it.” It was a dry red beef curry and it was indeed delicious. (It was similarly delicious when Karen and I returned to Tokyo together in 1982 and I hunted the restaurant down again. But I digress…)

So, I’m afraid my befuddlement about Ziegeuner-weisen and my lack of knowledge about Seijun Suzuki caused me to pass on screening it at the 1981 MFF. Oh well, mea culpa. After that, so Wikipedia informs, “When exhibitors declined to screen the film in Japan, (producer) Arato screened it himself in an inflatable, mobile tent to great success. It won Honourable Mention at the 31st Berlin International Film Festival, was nominated for nine Japanese Academy Awards and won four, including best director and best film, and was voted the number one Japanese film of the 1980s by Japanese critics.” There you go.

So, out of the blue, The Japanese Film Festival’s classic selection this year is a selection of Seijun Suzuki’s best known films. Seven of them are from his late Nikkatsu years when Suzuki, tiring of the mediocre gangster and costume dramas he was allocated started to fool around with the genres and almost by inadvertence produced a series of Pop Art artefacts that remain unique in Japanese cinema and have been to Australia before at both BIFF (curated by Tony Rayns) and MIFF (curated by Phillip Brophy).

The eighth and final film in the JFF classic selection, confined to free screenings in Sydney and to ACMI in Melbourne, was the independent production Ziegeunerweisen, not seen by me since that fateful screening back in 1980. A very good crowd showed up last night at the AGNSW screening and it was good to see that the evening started with a re-instatement of the late Robert Herbert’s ferocious set of slides about the need for phones to be turned off and silence to be maintained throughout. Good and definitely useful for a film like Ziegeunerweisen which at close to two and half hours is quite a slog.

But what was the befuddlement. The film now seems quite straightforward in its narrative and its story of two men and three women. Tadao Sato in his invaluable “Currents in Japanese Cinema” says the film: “…begins with a recording of violinist Pablo de Sarasate playing his own composition (“The Gypsy Melody” of the title) and then delves into the bizarre lives of five men and women whose existence takes on a ghost-like quality. As the director himself says, “It is a film where living people are actually dead and the dead are actually alive.” Hmmm. I guess directors can say what they like. Never trust the teller only the tale.

Whatever, the film’s reputation finally got home to me, enthralled for the most part at the subtle, often completely unexpected changes between those five men and women in their years long dance of life and death.


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