By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
He went from epitomizing the yakuza drama, to deconstructing the yakuza drama, to destroying his own career. When director Seijun Suzuki, 44 years old in 1967, turned in his film “Branded to Kill” to his employer— Nikkatsu Motion Picture Company promptly fired him. He didn’t direct again for 10 years.
Why self-immolate in the face of a fairly promising career? “The short answer, in internet parlance, is that he gave no (expletive),” says Tom Vick, an Asian film expert who worked with the Japan Foundation to organize the Suzuki Retrospective, coming to Seattle. “But it’s actually more complex than that. He had to work from scripts that were assigned to him at Nikkatsu, and he got bored making the same kind of film over and over again, so he started playing around, and he was egged on by a kind of ‘cult of Suzuki,’ who were his collaborators. He also claims he did [this] to make himself stand out among the other directors working at the studio also making yakuza movies.”
Vick, the author of “Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films Of Seijun Suzuki,” concludes, “I think all of that stemmed from his nihilistic world view, which he developed after surviving World War II. He basically resolved not to take anything seriously, including himself.”
The retrospective includes plenty of Suzuki’s yakuza dramas, including 1963’s “Youth of the Beast,” restrained in visual approach compared to what came later, but tight and dynamic as it relates the story of an ex-cop running a dangerous gauntlet between two rival yakuza gangs. “Tattooed Life,” from 1965, follows two brothers, one yakuza, one not, as they try to save each other, but come to loggerheads over a woman.
“Tokyo Drifter,” released the year before “Branded to Kill,” manifests his changing mindset. It’s supposed to be about a reformed yakuza hitman dodging execution. But Suzuki builds obviously-phony sets, slapped on lollipop colors, called attention at every turn to the artifices of filmmaking. He was on Nikkatsu’s watch list. He received warnings.
“Branded to Kill,” as Vick relates, “was pretty much the last straw for his bosses at Nikkatsu. He had received warnings for going too far with previous films, which he ignored. They even forced him to work in black-and-white, instead of color, in an attempt to rein him in. When ‘Branded’ turned out to be even more bonkers than what came before, they decided they’d had enough. Nikkatsu was also losing money at the time, partly because of competition from television, so Suzuki became a scapegoat for larger troubles at Nikkatsu.”
Suzuki wouldn’t sit in a director’s chair again for a decade. But his knack for action blended with nonsense, nudity, and only passing attention paid to exposition, made for an intriguing cult aesthetic. His films became popular at Japanese midnight screenings, and eventually began to be released in the West.
“Paradoxically,” explains Vick, ‘‘being fired by Nikkatsu turned him into a celebrity in Japan. When he wasn’t making movies, he was showing up on TV and in other people’s movies, writing books, etc.’’
“The big change in his work came with the Taisho Trilogy (‘Zigeunerweisen,’ ‘Kagero-za,’ and ‘Yumeji’) which have more of an art house style, but are also quite personal in that he was obsessed with the Taisho era, a relatively short period of Japanese history during which he was born. The final phase of his career, when he made ‘Pistol Opera’ and ‘Princess Raccoon,’ is almost like a personal retrospective, combining elements of the phases of his career, possibly inspired by all the attention he received from a touring retrospective in the 1990s that finally brought his work to the United States and Europe.”
In Japan, an entire generation of directors bears his influence, most notably Sion Sono, Takashi Miike, and Shinji Aoyama. In the United States, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch both paid tribute to him by referencing his films in theirs. Baz Luhrman has also stated his admiration for him. Elsewhere, Wong Kar-wai and John Woo have both been profoundly influenced by him.
“I think what they all admire in him is his willingness to break rules,” concludes Vick. “Part of a filmmaker’s education is to have rules drilled into their heads about how to make a commercial narrative film. I think they appreciate Suzuki’s complete disregard for them, which opens up new creative possibilities.”
The Seijun Suzuki retrospective runs through Wednesday, May 11th, at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave, between Pike and Pine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill; and the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices, showtimes, and more information, visit http://www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/series/3892.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.