5 Essential Seijun Suzuki Movies
On February 13, 2017, the world lost the great Seijun Suzuki, a filmmaker who won a cult following for a number of B-movies he made for Japanese entertainment company Nikkatsu in the 1960s. An influence on such directors as Takeshi Kitano and Quentin Tarantino, Suzuki’s trademark style consists of dark humor, eye-popping visuals, surrealism, and plenty of outlandish violence. In honor of Suzuki’s career, here’s a quick overview of five great movies to remember him by.
1. Youth of the Beast (1963)
After eight years of directing mostly forgettable movies about generic gangsters, juvenile delinquents, and pop singers, Suzuki made what is widely considered his first original movie, Youth of the Beast.
Watching the black-and-white opening, Youth of the Beast seems like it might be a classic film noir. Policemen look over the bodies of a cop and his mistress, suspecting it to be a double suicide. Suddenly, the scene shifts away to ex-cop Joji Mizuno (Joe Shishido) walking in the Technicolor streets of 60’s Tokyo, pounding away street punks to jazz music.
Joji’s way with his fists attracts the attention of a yakuza boss, and he agrees to start working for the boss’s gang. After weaseling his way into a rival gang, however, it appears that Joji has other plans in mind. He begins to play the two gangs off each other, hoping to ruin them both. Youth of the Beast’s constant twists and turns can be confusing, but it’s such an exciting ride that you won’t care what exactly is going on here.
2. Gate of Flesh (1964)
In the underbelly of postwar Tokyo, a young woman named Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) finds herself hungry and without a job. After being publicly beaten for stealing a potato, Maya meets Sen (Eimei Esumi), the leader of a group of prostitutes who takes Maya under her wing.
Living together in an abandoned building, Sen and the other women work without pimps and the Yakuza, having only each other to protect themselves. The group’s only requirement is that none of the women give sex out for free, but Maya’s loyalty is tested after she falls for a veteran on the run from the law.
Taijiro Tamura’s popular 1947 novel Gate of Flesh has been adapted several times, most recently as a TV drama in 2008, but Seijun Suzuki’s take on the story is definitely the best. It’s stylish, weird, and surprisingly touching.
3. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Suzuki’s offbeat pop-art movies weren’t making the higher-ups at Nikkatsu particularly happy. Hoping to get a more conventional effort from Suzuki, Nikkatsu decided to cut his budget for Tokyo Drifter.
The result? A surrealist parody of the Yakuza genre that includes a Wild West saloon brawl, a horde of men who come to a gunfight with swords, and Spaghetti Western whistling. The antihero who does all this whistling, Tetsu Honda (Tetsuya Watari), is a loyal gangster who’s given up on the Yakuza life. Even though he’s gone straight, Tetsu keeps in touch with his old boss, who tells him to leave Tokyo and the girl he loves behind.
To avoid a former rival gang, Tetsu takes up his boss’s request and becomes “The Tokyo Drifter.” Wherever he wanders though, Tetsu can’t lose the gang tracking him down. In the end, Tetsu has no choice but to go back to Tokyo to settle things once and for all.
4. Branded to Kill (1967)
Since slashing Suzuki’s budget didn’t work, Nikkatsu had one last scheme to put a stop to his bizarre originality: force him to film his next two movies, Fighting Elegy (1966) and Branded to Kill, in black-and-white. It was a hopeless endeavor; reviewing Branded to Kill, one contemporary critic complained that “We cannot help being confused. We do not go to theaters to be puzzled.”
Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), an assassin who gets turned on by the smell of boiling rice, is Japan’s third greatest hitman. After a series of successful hits, Goro takes on the job of killing an American investigator. Everything goes wrong when a butterfly causes Goro to miss his shot, however, leading to the Number Three Killer becoming a target himself.
On release, Branded to Kill was a critical and commercial flop. A tired Nikkatsu then fired Suzuki, the president of the company explaining that “Suzuki makes incomprehensible films.” Though Suzuki would later win a lawsuit against Nikkatsu for wrongful termination, no other companies would work with him and he was essentially blacklisted.
5. Zigeunerweisen (1980)
After being blacklisted in the film industry for nearly a decade, Suzuki returned to the scene in 1977 with the rather disappointing A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness. His true comeback would happen three years later, with the unpronounceable Zigeunerweisen, a work quite different from the stuff he made for Nikkatsu.
The first of a trilogy of ghost stories Suzuki set in Japan’s Taishō period (1912-1926), Zigeunerweisen follows Aochi (Kisako Makishi), a German professor who catches up with his vagabond friend Nakasago (Yoshio Harada) after the latter is accused of murdering a woman. Doppelgangers, love triangles, and a hell of a lot of dialogue ensues.
Compared to Suzuki’s better-known movies, Zigeunerweisen is a slow and talky affair. There are no hookers or gangsters to be seen, and the awesome jazz and pop songs of his Nikkatsu days have been replaced with a melancholic violin score by Romantic composer Pablo de Sarasate. Still, while it might not be typical Suzuki, Zigeunerweisen is a beautiful and haunting gem that deserves to be seen.
Desjardins, Chris. Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005. Google Books. Web. 1 May 2017.
Miyao, Daisuke. “Dark Visions of Japanese Film Noir.” Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Phillips, Alastair and Julian Stringer. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Pulver, Andrew. “Cult Japanese director Seijun Suzuki dies aged 93.” The Guardian. 22 February 2017. Web. 28 April 2017.
Youth of the Beast: Wikipedia
Gate of Flesh: Wikipedia
Tokyo Drifter: IMDB
Branded to Kill: Wikipedia