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Seijun Suzuki, Director - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2010

Films directed by Seijun Suzuki on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Nowadays, Seijun Suzuki is recognized as one of Japan's leading arthouse directors, as well as one of the most stylish and original directors ever, but his biography is at least as one-of-a-kind as many of his best movies, as this now acknowledged cinematic artist started as an assembly line director making pop music films, and while being handed one low budget film after the next for the lower half of a double bill, he gradually developed a distinct style all of his own until, still in the context of assembly line filmmaking, his films transcended the cheap genre fodder they were supposed to be and more and more became little works of art in their own right - until Suzuki got fired by his long-time employer Nikkatsu for making what would soon be considered his signature movie and a key Japanese genre movie as such, Koroshi no Rakuin/Branded to Kill (1967), and he had to spend the next 10 years in artistic exile. Upon finally returning to the big screen though, Suzuki's films got weirder and weirder - but with a twinkle in the eye and the intention to entertain no matter what ...

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

For a man whose films (especially the later ones) are quite as unique as Seijun Suzuki's, his early years are almost disappointingly ordinary: He was born Seitaro Suzuki in 1923 in Tokyo, Japan to a family busy in the textile trade. In 1941, young Seitaro had finished the Tokyo Trade School and applied to the Asian Development Institute, with the aim of going to Indochina, but failed the entrance exam. After a year of private studies he entered a college in Hirosaki. By that time, Japan had already entered World War II though, and in 1943, Suzuki was recruited for military service.

 

During the war, Suzuki was shipwrecked twice, and even though he said he didn't desert the army merely out of fear of being shot, he eventually left the army in 1946 a second lieutnant. According to his own words, he was able to see the war (well, some of it) in a humourous light.

 

After the war, Suzuki continued his studies in Hirosaki, then in 1948, he wanted to enroll in the prestigious Tokyo University, but he failed the entrance exam. Rather by chance, he instead joined the film department of the newly founded Kamakura academy. After having finished his film studies, he took and passed the entrance exam of the even then traditional production company Shochiku and became an assistant director. He got his first assignment with director Minoru Shibuya, and initially worked with a wide variety of directors before being assigned exclusively to Tsuruo Iwama.

 


 

Nikkatsu, Part 1

 


Nikkatsu is considered one of Japan's oldest production houses and was founded back in 1912, but almost destroyed due to failed wartime film politics - so much so that Nikkatsu seized producing movies during the war and only picked up production again in 1954 (!).

This also had long-term positive effects on the studio though as it led to a rejuvenation of its stable of directors, and while at other studios it took years for hopeful assistant directors to move up the ladder and into the director's chair, Nikkatsu was able to offer this kind of promotion to aspiring young filmmakers in a mere two years, and thus many talented wannabe directors left their jobs at other studios to take advantage of Nikkatsu's system, Seijun Suzuki among them.

 

Of course, the fact that Nikkatsu hired young and promsing directors did not mean they would give them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted or let the relatively inexperienced young men have a shot at their A pictures right away, no, these newcomers were relegated to second features to properly learn the craft and to try and make a name of themselves before they could get their hands on bigger projects.

Thus, Seijun Suzuki's first film for Nikkatsu, pretty much his try-out film, was not an arthouse extravaganza like the ones he made later in his life, but Minato no Kanpei: Shori o Wagate ni/Victory is Mine (1956), a kayo eiga, meaning a film based on a pre-exisiting pop tune. In all honesty, the film, a light-weight love story with a bit of gangster action thrown in, might have been entertaining but it wasn't great or unique in any way - but it was exactly what the bosses at Nikkatsu expected from Suzuki, a light-weight, unpretentious B-movie to run next to a more prestigious, higher-budget film on a double bill, and thus on the (relative) strength of Victory is Mine, Suzuki got a long-term contract with Nikkatsu.

 

None of Suzuki's early films - the earliest of which he still made under his real name Seitaro - was too ambitious, just your typical genre fare made on a budget. That doesn't mean they were bad films though within what they were, they were actually pretty enjoyable and entertaining, just nothing exceptional (yet).

Of special interest might be Akuma no Machi/Satan's Town (1956), basically because it was his first yakuza movie, a genre he would return to time and again over the years, a genre he would take apart and redefine.

 


All during his time at Nikkatsu, Suzuki put out three to four films per year, mostly of the action-, yakuza and crime drama variety, more often than not a combination of some sort of these genres even.

For the film Ankokugai no Bijo/Underworld Beauty (1958), he for the first time used his assumed name Seijun Suzuki, under which he would eventually become famous. The film, an entertaining film noir, was also one of his best films from the 1950's, not because it was the first shot in CinemaScope, but because it already showed traces of the playfulness Seijun Suzuki's films later became famous for. Sure, the film was positively tame compared to later efforts, but some macabre and absurd details that most certainly transcended simple B-movie filmmaking were already firmly in place.

 


Even more playful than Underworld Beauty is Kutabare Gurentai/Fighting Delinquents (1960), a film about yakuza and juvenile delinquents - both hot topics in the movies back then - only on the surface. Actually it's more of an unconventional mix of crime drama and comedy, gangster flick and musical, a film that's aware of the cheesiness of its own plot, which gives the director free reign to veer off into different directions whenever the audience least expects him to. Additional to that, Fighting Delinquents is the first movie Suzuki has made in colour, something he instantly shows a sure hand with, drenching but not drowning his story in lush primary colours reminiscent of comicbooks (though ironically, Japanese comics were and still are usually published in black and white).

 


For many, Yaju no Seishun/Youth of the Beast (1963) is the first film in which Suzuki fully realized his vision, as in this film it became more obvious than ever before how little he thought of his actual plot, and instead liked to concentrate on the visual aspects of the story and on the setpieces his narrative set-up had to offer - which turned the rather average story of an ex-cop hero on a mission playing two yakuza clans against one another in a feast of visual excesses and unusual sequences of all kinds ... yet to call Youth of the Beast a milestone in Suzuki's filmography hardly does his earlier films justice, in which he slowly and within the confinements of B-movie filmmaking (both on a budgetary and a narrative level) worked towards his own kind of narrative freedom.

 

Suzuki himself always preferred Akutaro/The Bastard (1963), the film he made immediately afterwards, to Youth of the Beast - mainly though because it was the first film on which he collaborated with production designer and art director Takeo Kimura, a man who instinctively understood Suzuki's visual requirements, helped in putting even his wilder and more excessive ideas to the screen, and would remain Suzi's partner in crime pretty much for the rest of his career ...

 


 

Nikkatsu, Part 2

 

To understand Seijun Suzuki's career, it's important to remember that he was hired by Nikkatsu not as a star director, a visionary, a cinematic artist, but merely as a craftsman to turn out second features for the studios double bills, mostly of the crime, gangster and action variety, as mentioned above, and during all of his time at Nikkatsu, that didn't change (at least not on paper) - Suzuki was under contract to film three to four films a year, based on scripts handed to him by his bosses which he could only theoretically decline to do (declining too many scripts could mean being fired, so it was an option only chosen very rarely - about 3 times in Suzuki's 10+ years at  Nikkatsu). On top of that, Suzuki had no say in casting, so theoretically at least, filmmaking for Suzuki really did resemble an assembly line job.

 

However, according to his own accounts, Suzuki quickly tired of being a mere craftsman, so he did what he could do with the material given to him, like changing the scripts round a bit, adding personal touches, making up extravagant setpieces, and of course veering off into a different direction on a visual level.

 

At first, films by Suzuki semed a bit quirky but somehow cool in comparison to B pictures by other directors, but the longer he stayed at Nikkatsu, the more playful and extravagant his films became, and once he was joined by Takeo Kimura, he had found a congenial partner who was able to put his concepts into actual sets, which made Suzuki's films look more and more detached from both genre and reality/realism, and they seemed to exist in a world all of their own - while never really betraying their genre roots.

 




However, it would be a mistake to reduce Suzuki's films to their visual qualities, especially from the mid-1960's onwards he also stered his genre films into different directions narratively, which usually went hand in hand with the films' visual extravaganzas - the almost expressionist bombed out city of Nikutai no Mon/Gate of Flesh (1964) mirrors not only the time the film is set in but also its underlying feeling of decay, the intentionally heavy-handed symbolism of Shunpu Den/Story of a Prostitute (1965) gives away what Suzuki actually thought about the movie's cheesy plot, the comicbook style of Hana to Doto/The Flowers and the Angry Waves (1965) gives the film an extra dimension its slightly silly plot almost doesn't deserve, and Suzuki's stylized pictures in Irezumi Ichidai/Tattooed Life (1965) perfectly support the film's almost abstract story.

 


Tattooed Life is a perfect example for Suzuki's evolution as a filmmaker: While he started out as a mere genre director, he was now adamant to break up genre conventions, to take his career to the next level - but the reaction of the Nikkatsu-bosses, who still saw him as a craftsman, no more, was less encouraging when they were warning him that he was "going too far" with Tattooed Life.

 

Suzuki was no longer willing to just follow studio directives, so he followed Tattooed Life with Kawachi Karumen/Carmen from Kawachi (1966), which on the surface sounds like a light romance, but incorporates many elements more reminiscent of experimental filmmaking than anything else. Again, studio heads were less than pleased ...

 


As a response, Nikkatsu decided to slash the budget for Suzuki's next film and give him a script so full of clichés it seemed to be impossible to result in anything but a run-of-the-mill yakuza flick.

The result was Tokyo Nagaremono/Tokyo Drifter (1966), a yakuza film alright, but one that takes apart the genre as such and reconstructs it as an at times absurd, at times expressionist but always exhilarating work of art in primary to garish colours that at times owes as much to film musicals and Westerns as it does to gangster cinema - and that above all else doesn't take itself at all seriously - without being a regular spoof.

From today's point of view, Tokyo Drifter is regarded Seijun Suzuki's first masterpiece by many, but back in the day, the heads at Nikkatsu were les than amused.

 


For Suzuki's next film, Nikkatsu slashed his budget even more, forced him to return to black-and-white filmmaking, and gave him a ridiculously simplistic script to work with, a martial arts story as formulaic as can be ... but by that time, Seijun Suzuki was beyond being tamed, and in his hands, Kenka Ereji/Fighting Elegy (1966), the tale of a young man born to fight, became a hilarious comedy about sexual frustrations and violence as a means of politics - in short, something that was almost certain to disappoint the studio bosses but please at least today's cineastes.

 


Koroshi no Rakuin/Branded to Kill (1967) was pretty much Suzuki's final straw concerning his employment with Nikkatsu: After all, he could have turned the weak script about a contract killer he was handed into a routine genre movie and everybody at the studio would have been happy. Instead though, Suzuki turned his script into an absurd masterpiece, a film that defies categorization and that's far out even by Suzuki's standards.

Problem was of course that Nikkatsu back then did not want a genuine work of art which Branded to Kill was but merely a featureless flick to fill the lower half of a double bill, and since Suzuki seemed to be unable (or unwilling) to deliver that, Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori decided to fire him - which is even kind of understandable from his point of view - after 40+ films Suzuki had made for the studio..

 


Now this is where the story should have ended, but it didn't because Nikkatsu's Kyusaku Hori had decided to wage a personal vendetta against Suzuki, apparently just because he found his latest films "incomprehensible". This is interesting in the light of the fact that around the mid-1960's, Suzuki's films were beginning to be noticed by the student crowd, an audience segment that traditionally pays little attention to B-movies almost by definition.

In 1968, shortly after Suzuki being officially fired from Nikkatsu, the student-run Cine Club was trying to launch a Seijun Suzuki retrospective, and was asking Nikkatsu for no less than 37 of his movies to screen - but president Kyusaku Hori personally denied the release of the films and also saw to it that all of Suzuki's films were pulled from distribution. This caused an uproar among cineastes nationwide, and eventually, the whole affair was brought to the attention of the media.

Repeated attempts to reason with Nikkatsu and Kyusaku Hori led to nothing, so ultimately, Seijun Suzuki took the whole affair to court, suing the studio for breach of contract and personal damages. All of this led to a lengthy trial that lasted for over three years and was only eventually settled out of court with Suzuki receiving at least a fraction of the sum he had been suing the studio for.

 

The trial seriously tarnished the reputation of Nikkatsu (which soon afterwards resorted to mainly producing softcore erotica) while it made a celebrity and cineastes' darling out of Seijun Suzuki. Problem was though that while Suzuki was popular with cineastes and the general public alike, he was blacklisted by all major studios, most probably because they were not willing to accept a director who put his own artistic aspirations over their business interests and had the audacity to sue one of them, too.

 

As a result, Seijun Suzuki did not direct another movie for the big screen until 1977, ten years after Branded to Kill, which many regard as his signature film ...

 


 

Comeback

 

The years away from the big screen, Seijun Suzuki kept himelf busy directing TV-movies, episodes for TV-series and commercials. None of them big things, but he had to make a living, right? He also published several collections of his essays, and having become a bit of a celebrity/counter culture icon, he started acting in other people's films, starting with a special appearance in Kazuki Omori's Kuraku Naru-made Matenai!/Don't Wait Until Dark! (1975). (To this day, Seijun can be seen making cameo appearances in films by other directors, even though he has long retired from the film business otherwise.)

 


In 1977 finally, Seijun Suzuki returned to the directing chair of a theatrical feature wth Hishu Monogatari/A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness - but the film quite simply wasn't what anybody had been waiting for for ten years. Now don't get me wrong, the film isn't essentially bad, as many sources do suggest, it's just a pointless farce about sports (golf in particular) and the media with a few dark touches that fails to captivate the audience in a way his best films - particularly of course Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill - did.

 


Fortunately though, A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness was not a precursor of films to come on a quality level, already with his next theatrical feature Seijun Suzuki proved he had found back to old form again: Zigeunerweisen (1980) is a murder mystery, talking in genre terms, but unlike any murder mystery you have ever seen, as once again, Suzki takes the basic elements of the genre apart and reconstructs them in an unusual matter. Add to this Suzuki's trademark stylized direction and you get a genre-defying genre experience that has also been labelled a ghost story by many, but that has to do more with the logic of a nightmare, actually.

 


Zigeunerweisen might not be perfect - it shows some weaknesses on a narrative level -, but it was nevertheless the triumphant return of Japanese cinema's lost son, it became a success commercially as well as critically, and it won Suzuki many awards.

 


In style, Suzuki's next film Kagero-za (1981) resembles Zigeunerweisen, but as a whole it's actually the superior film. With Kagero-za, a dark, even haunting romance, objectively speaking, Suzuki goes even further in breaking up genre conventions, and this time, he even attacks the narrative structure of his own plot as such, suspending temporal logic and letting present, past and future co-exist. Furthermore, death exists in this story only as a passing condition, souls might be nothing more than bladder cherries (or the other way round?), theatre doesn't only mimic live but at times also anticipates it, and several characters might just be manifestations of one and the same character - but then maybe not.

What makes Kagero-za so amazing though is not that it wages war against both genre and narrative conventions, but that it makes perfect sense caught in its own, nightmare-like logic and remains surprisingly accessible for general audiences throughout.

 


In 1991, Suzuki made a third film in style of Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za (1981), Yumeji, and eventually, the three films became known as Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy, named after the Taisho period (roughly 1912 to 1926) these three films are set in - though it sounds absurd to name these films after a certain period, because while they are all period pieces, that's about the least remarkable thing about them.

Back to Yumeji though, that in theory is based on the life of real-life painter Takehisa Yumeji - but don't expect anything remotely resembling a biopic here, as Suzuki doesn't seem to be interested to tell the man's actual story in the least, instead he spins a yarn of murder and sex, madness and revenge somehow revolving around some of the painter's erotic pictures, which once again pretty much follows the logic of a nightmare rather than anything else. The result is a pretty interesting movie, but to be honest it lacks the greatness and freshness of Kagero-za.

 

In the 10 years between Kagero-za and Yumeji, Suzuki made 2 more films:

  • On one hand there's Kapone oi ni Nako/Capone Cries a Lot (1985), a rather weak and uninspired comedy about a Japanese singer wanting to make it in the USA.
  • On the other hand, there's the animated feature Rupan Sansei: Babiron no Ogon Densetsu/Lupin III: The Gold of Babylon (1985, co-directed with Shigetsugu Yoshida). Now it might be surprising and promising to read Suzuki's name in the context of an animated series film, but it's all the less surprising once you know that Suzuki has previously also worked on the TV-series Lupin III. And about the promise his invovlement holds: If you expect madness Seiun Suzuki-style, you will be disappointed, Suzuki plays according to the rules in this one. But if you expect madness Lupin III-style (not the worst kind of madness I might want to add), you'll be greatly entertained ...

In the 1990's, Seijun Suzuki's cinematic output almost came to a standstill, and why wouldn't it, after all, the man was already in his late 60's/70's. Besides Yumeji, he only directed an episode of the omnibus movie Kekkon/Marriage (1993, other episodes directed by Joji Nagao, Hideo Onchi), and while his episode was the best at least, it was still a disappointment, as was the movie as a whole.

 


In the early 2000's though, news hit the filmworld though that got cineastes all over the world in a spin: Seijun Suzuki, by that time going on 80, would remake his msterpiece Branded to Kill. Now that could have been a good thing, but also a bad thing, because Suzuki's age might have rendered him toothless.

Thing is, the remake of Branded to Kill never got made - as such. Basically the script for the film to be veered off into a different direction, and while it still shared the same basic premise, the resulting film would no longer qualify as a remake.

All that said, the film in question, Pisutoru Opera/Pistol Opera (2001) ably proves that Seijun Suzuki has not gone toothless despite his age, with the movie he delivers a bizarre, even surreal take on crime and action cinema shot in glaring primary colours and in front of highly stylized and artificial sets. In short, this film did not look like any other genre film, but seemed like a logical continuation of the genre destruction and reconstruction Suzuki had started in the 1960's.

 


Suzuki's last film (so far?) is Operetta Tanuki Goten/Princess Raccoon (2005), starring then Pan-Asian superstar Zhang Ziyi [Zhang Ziyi bio - click here], which resembles Pistol Opera inasmuch as it takes apart genre conventions and is unlike anything you have ever seen. This time, Seijun Suzuki has set his sights on the fantasy genre, a genre he previously did not have much experience with, and to properly put his stamp on that genre he fills his film with corny to bad special effects, wooden performances by all involved, and even a few underwhelming song-and-dance numbers. But if you think that all results in a bad film, you are gravely mistaken, in the hands of Suzuki, all these shortcomings are intentional and he builds his own absurd to surreal world around them so the whole film becomes a weird, trip-like experience that's simply to be seen to be believed.

 


With Seijun Suzuki being in his late 80's now, it's not very likely that he will ever direct another movie, and he has already announced his retirement from directing years ago in an interview - but with both Pistol Opera and Princess Raccoon, he has created the perfect swan song for himself, one of the most creative filmmakers of Japanese and international cinema, and looking back at his work in B-pictures from the 1950's and 60's, one could only wish that in a world in which B-movies with A-budgets are called blockbusters there would be more filmmakers like Seijun Suzuki who dare to make something different and even risk their own job in the process ...

 

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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