Action Index






Youth of the Beast, 1963. Directed by Seijun Suzuki. Jo Shishido, Ikuko Kimuro, Misako Watanabe, Seijun Suzuki, Tamio Kawaji, Hideaki Esumi

Gate of Flesh, 1964. Directed by Seijun Suzuki. Tamiko Ishii, Satoko Kasai, Kayo Matsuo, Yumiko Nogawa, Jo Shishido, Misako Tominaga

The critical reputation of Seijun Suzuki is beginning to come into its own, which is something of a minor miracle, given that Suzuki was fired by his studio, Nikkatsu, for making the allegedly incomprehensible Branded to Kill. Branded to Kill is now in the Criterion Collection--its time has come, apparently. The textual material on the Criterion editions of Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter indicate that Suzuki was some kind of lone maverick whose influence was not felt and whose career was over once he was expelled from Japan's crumbling studio system. This is untrue. Suzuki continued to make movies--in fact, his Pistol Opera came out in 2001, although eight years separate it from his last film. Suzuki's influence can be seen on a number of movies, ranging from Kinji Fukasawa's Black Lizard to Takashi Miike's gangster films. In spite of this, only Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter seem to enjoy any kind of notoriety. Four other Suzuki films are available in the United States, albeit on hard-to-find tapes. The DVD revolution is making even those tapes scarce and no DVD editions of these movies have been announced.

So, what are we to make of the rest of Suzuki's career? Let's take a look at two of Suzuki's OTHER films, shall we?

The filmmaker Seijun Suzuki most resembles is Russ Meyer. Like Meyer, Suzuki's films are a riot of color and staccato editing in which style is everything and substance barely makes an appearance. In Meyer's case, this is a result of his cinematic fetishes. In Suzuki's case it resulted from boredom. His studio, Nikkatsu, assigned Suzuki to a succession of hackneyed yakuza plots. Suzuki appears to have no interest in the yakuza movie at all beyond what they provide as a framework for elaborate set pieces. So it is with The Youth of the Beast (1963), in which the story seems "borrowed" from Yojimbo, as ex-cop Jo Shishido pits rival gangs against each other in order to avenge his fallen mentor. Suzuki doesn't really care about the plot, although he pays more attention to it than he does in his later films. What he cares about is filling the screen with lush color compositions and filling the soundtrack with striking syncopations and silences.

As pure abstraction, The Youth of the Beast is magnificent. The best sequence in the film takes place in a soundproofed office in a nightclub where the windows to the office look out on the club like it's a vast aquarium (the opening of the fans held by an almost nude fan dancer looks remarkably like an aenemone). Almost as striking is the inexplicable image of a gangster whipping one of his stable of prostitutes as a dust storm rages outside. Inserted seemingly at random, this scene is pure styling. The performances actually make an impact in this one, particularly the guy who plays Shishido's gun-crazy sidekick, but the movie isn't really about anything.

Suzuki's The Gate of Flesh (1964) MIGHT be about something, but what that something IS is a matter of interpretation. The last time I saw this film was on a several-generations-down-the-line bootleg copy with subtitles that seemed like an afterthought, so Home Vision's VHS version is a dramatic improvement. I'm still not sure what to make of the movie, though.

The film follows a group of prostitutes who have formed a loose cabal in the wreckage of Tokyo just after the war. The delicate balance of their relationship is threatened by the charismatic hood who falls in with them, pitting them against each other as rivals for his affection. Once again, style is paramount, as Suzuki color-codes the prostitutes and sets their bright colors against the drab backdrop of a bombed out Tokyo. But there are troubling contextual elements that suggest that the film is about more than style. A feminist reading of the film might latch onto the fact that the film wants it both ways: it functions as a celebration of sexual liberation and as a reinforcement of sexual roles in the dominant culture. A political reading of the film might focus on the depiction of Americans in the film, on cultural imperialism, and on the fact that the last shot of the film shows an American flag waving above the ruins. The film COULD even represent the repressed imperial ambitions of Japan redirected onto itself (the best line in the film comes when one of the prostitutes sneers at Jo Shishido and spits: "It's all the fault of men! YOU lost the war!").

Towards the end of the film, Suzuki's mask as a cynical stylist begins to slip, and a humanist peeks out, when Maya, the film's ostensible protagonist, declares that until she knew love, she was just a beast. This is emphasized when, having broken the code of the cabal (by screwing for something other than money), she is hung up like a side of meat. By the time she realizes this, though, she has already destroyed the American priest who wants to help her and has already formed an unhealthy attachment to her "sisters." In this last reading of the film, Suzuki subverts the intimations of humanity by turning nasty on the audience. The film's views on religion and on sexual gamesmanship are worthy of Bunuel at his most misanthropic (and even culminates in a feast).

In all honesty, this is all more than the film can contain and these themes work at cross purposes to obscure any meaning Suzuki might intend--perhaps deliberately--a fault compounded by some thoroughly nasty imagery. The film features three nude whippings (and justifies them somewhat) and the onscreen slaughter of a cow. This last seems to have been performed for real for the benefit of the camera. I knew it was coming this time, so the blow was cushioned somewhat, but it jolts the viewer out of the film. The Gate of Flesh isn't nearly as entertaining as Suzuki unbounded by content, but the film is deeply troubling none the less.

So what does this all add up to? As a portrait of a neglected career, these films demonstrate that there are still discoveries to be made in the vast ocean of world cinema. More to the point, they show one of the architects of Japanese pop-cinema at the height of his creative abilities. This alone makes Suzuki's films worthwhile. The world can't ignore this stuff forever. Now, if the world would only take an interest in Yasuzo Masamura, too...