Seijun Suzuki – An Annotated Filmography (1964-2005)


(Versão em português aqui)
(First part here)

Second part of the annotated fillmography covering the final years at Nikkatsu and Suzuki’s independent period.

The Flower and Angry Waves (1964)

Akira Kobayashi leads a labor rebellion in this Suzuki film that employs some of the same principles of his gangster films for a more noble cause. On this style, I think I prefer Kinji Fukasaku’s North Sea Dragon. There’s a lot of Suzuki’s usual style, and there’s always something interesting in the historical tensions of the filmmaker’s period films.

Gate of Flesh (1964)
Gate of Flesh is, along with Fighting Elegy, the two most ambitious movies that Suzuki made in his years at Nikkatsu studio, even if as he confessed it started with his bosses asking for a skin flick. A portrait of the spiritual misery of a defeated Japan post WWII seen through a group of independent prostitutes. It is a very perceptive film about the meanings of military occupation. A complete absence of belonging, the transformation of every personal relationship into a power struggle ready to be capitalized. The sisterhood here has little of the solidarity that we find in most geisha films, but a final triumph of capital logic over the same feeling of union. It is a panoramic film about a country in ruins, a film of warm colors, bodies observed very close, excessive feelings. The introduction of desire only intensifies the masochism and the certainty of defeat.

Our Blood Will Not Forgive (1964)
As the tittle announces, a very determinist film. An unforgiven gaze towards Japanese family whose blood relations can only lead to more disgrace. Two brothers grow up over the shadow of their Yakuza dad’s death, one in crime and the other in legality. A movie of very artificial staging (there’s a wonderful scene with the most fake retroprojection I’ve ever seen) whose theatricality serve as a constant commentary over the two brothers. There’s an obsession with social image that Suzuki shots reveal time and again as doomed. The call of violence is clear and inevitable. The climatic shootout is one Suzuki’s best.

Story of a Prostitute (1965)
Gate of Flesh’s masochist desire reimagined in a film that by Suzuki’s standards has a somberness worth of Kenji Mizoguchi. It is one of those movies that break with his western image. A very violent film about women’s condition in the battlefield, very attentive about relationships between power and desire. A movie about the meaning of devotion in a fascist society. A portrait of pure devastation.

Born Under Crossed Stars (1965)
A curious film in the way it marries the wayward youth films from early in Suzuki’s career with some of the ambitions of his mid-60s work. The portrait of Japanese masculinity in particular suggest a rough draft of Fighting Elegy. It is an uneven film with some inventive moments.

Tatttoed Life (1965)
This portrait of 1920s Japan in some ways complement the destructive tone of his films with post-war settings (and it is also very different from his later Taisho trilogy). A movie about spiritual rebirth in a violent space. Very theatrical in its staging even before the climax in which Suzuki abandons drama for pure abstraction of light and blunt movement. It is a high point of action cinema, but the movie that comes before is also worth attention.

Carmen from Kawachi (1966)

When we talk about Suzuki’s partnerships with performers, we usually think about his leading man (above all Jo Shishido), but one of the most vital was with Yumiko Nogawa. Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh and Carmen from Kawachi form a loose trilogy of prostitution dramas that follow the transformations of Japanese character from fascism to frantic consumerism. It is a film of great empathy, and Nogawa is great as usual. The title suggests Bizet, but the spirit is far closer to a reimagined Sade for a brutalizing society that imagines itself civilized.

Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Tokyo Drifter must be the Suzuki’s movie cinephiles are most likely to get first contact with, and so it tends to dominate our imagination about him. There’s a plot about paranoia and vengeance in the criminal underworld that is at the same time essential and unreadable. Just an excuse for an orgy of colors, sharp movements and delirious sets. The theme song is as hard to forget as Morricone’s best ones, which makes sense in a movie that works more as a musical than an action one. Tetsuya Watari plays the lead, and he has a more recessive personality than Shishido, ideal for a movie in which he walks through shots while a series of aggressive formal movements act over him.

Fighting Elegy (1966)
During his twelve years at Nikkatsu, Suzuki worked almost entirely in the B movie unit (Gate of Flesh was shot and edited in under a month for instance), Fighting Elegy is something of an exception, with 30s ambiance and a desire to locate the ascension of Japanese fascism and a script by the great Kaneto Shindô. It is also one of the few Suzuki movies that he initiated himself. A film about how Japanese youth, unresolved libido, was canalized towards a violent imperialist and fascist project. A movie that is at the same time very funny and horrifying. Fighting Elegy remains very up to date. A final parenthesis the source novel was divided in two parts with the later one a war drama showing the lead dying in combat and Suzuki’s intentions were to film it as a second film, and he even got around to co-writing a script, but had to shelve it after his firing from Nikkatsu.

Branded to Kill (1967)
One of cinema’s great phallocentric nightmares. Fractured until the limit of abstraction in a series of ritualized meetings between hired killers trying to see who carries the biggest pistol. It is like a Japanese remake of Welles’ version of The Trail, but with even more black comedy. Few movies are as aggressive, both in the behavior of its criminal characters, but also in how film form consistently attacks the audience. At the center of the action there’s Jo Shishido who died this week, with his distinct and focused face, an ideal of efficient individualism that serves Suzuki’s satirical intents perfectly. A few years later co-screenwriter Atsushi Yamatoya would remake it as an erotic thriller, Trapped in Lust, pushing to text all the sexual subtext.

Good Evening, Dear Husband: A Duel (1968)
Good Evening, Dear Husband: A Duel was the last project Suzuki did at Nikkatsu. A half hour movie for a TV anthology series. An apocalyptic romantic triangle that deals with some of the same ideas about desire and violence from his movies from this period, reduced to basic elements given the extreme low budget.

Nikkatsu’s president Kyusaku Hori hated Branded to Kill so much he considered shelving it, when it was finally released to good reviews, Hori (who had previously sent Suzuki multiple warnings for “excessive experimentation”) fired the filmmaker for making incomprehensible films. Suzuki fired back with a process who took years in court, send him to the industry black list and helped drown the studio’s finances. He eventually won and received an official apology from Hori and part of his missed wages, but it would be a decade before he was allowed a new theatrical feature. A lesser known part of the episode is that the firing happened while Suzuki was receiving a retrospective at a college cineclub and Nikkatsu withdraw the authorization. Suzuki’s biggest victory in the case was the guarantee that Nikkatsu was not allowed to do that.

A Mummy’s Love (1973)
Save from a few TV ads, this 48 minute television movie was the only work Suzuki managed to get screened in public during the 10 years he remained blacklisted by Japanese studios.  A horror film that at the same time suggest the ghost movies from the Taisho trilogy of the following decade, and a film that suggest a crime to justify the punishment by being everything Hori accused his final Nikkatsu movies of being.

A Tale of Sorrow and Madness (1977)
Suzuki returned to cinema with this satire on Japanese consumerism. A very sour film whose more placid surface slowly gives away to an apocalypse. The filmmaker’s taste for a certain plasticity already reveal itself very different from his Nikkatsu movies, but the idea that beauty hides horrors remains the same. Suzuki is very conscious of his new freedoms as an independent filmmaker. The explicit criticism of television is truly a criticism of the entire apparatus that sustain Japanese consumerist imagination, including the film industry.

Fang in the Hole (1979)
Another television hour long. A whodunit about how as much as who. The detective has a skull with a hole and many questions, and the movie splits itself around them. There’s something supernatural in the mystery of its images, even if the action remains practical. Like in A Mummy’s Love, there’s a more self-conscious aggressive experimentalism than in his 60s films.

Zigeunerweisen (1980)
First film of the so-called Taisho trilogy. It keeps many of the characteristics one associates with Suzuki: a strong pictorialism, theatricality of the actions, an element of mystery about its characters, but even more than A Story of Sorrow and Madness it feels like a radical rupture with the genre movies that made his name. It is like someone crossed the supernatural mystery of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen with Hong Sang-soo’s comedies of drunken intellectuals. The portrait of a Japan that is at the same time closer and far away from those early 80s is very strong.

Kagero-za (1981)
Zigeunerweisen become Seijun Suzuki real return to movies cleaning up all of  local major film awards, and he soon did this thematic sequel again settled in the Taisho period and involving pathetic intellectual men embarrassing themselves through dreamlike mood. The supernatural elements are more pronounced, as is the portrayal of haunted Japan in transformation. It is another tale of perdition about male libido, and it is interesting to notice that it is thematically close to some of the late Nikkatsu crime films, but the difference in the main characters profile makes their meaning change a lot.

Cherry Blossoms in Spring (1983)
Beautiful images in theatrical tableaux imbued of a constant danger. An early straight to video movie about the seduction of surfaces. The lower budget means that everything is a little less hallucinatory than in the two previous films, but the principle that animates them is the same. The artificial as a way of perdition, Japanese imagination, love for the ceremonial. The staging of the call of death.

The Choice of Family (1983)
Another TV movie that Suzuki did in 1983 and unfortunately a less successful one. The biting satire on Japanese Family and society from the period is typical of his films, but the television images are too shallow to allow the characters much of a sense of mystery, and it lacks the creativity one find in his best films.

Capone Cries a Lot (1985)
If the post-war years were haunted by the American presence in local soil and the impact of this colonization of the victorious over Japanese society, the 80s are of the arrival of modern Japan as a dominant force over western capital. Capone Cries a Lot, one of Suzuki’s best films that never get mentioned, is about this encounter, a return to the past to talk about the present. A screwball comedy on Japan/US relations and the appeal of American culture. The action is contemporary to those of the Taisho films, but it is images double down in the aggressive presence of American iconography, starting with a very histrionic Al Capone. Despite his crime films often made him be perceived as a westernized artist, the great Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi described Suzuki once as “a very Japanese man who regards western people as barbarians”. An anti-imperialist comedy that shows Suzuki at his most aggressive and creative: from the loony performances to the expressive use of simple sets to unexpected musical numbers and an intelligent and unpredictable editing. A demolishing film of a world out of place, an origin myth for modern Japan.

Lupin the III: The Legend of the Gold of Babylon (1985)  (co-directed by Shigetsugu Yoshida)
Suzuki’s only experience with feature animation is this episode for the popular Lupin III series (the first since Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro). Curiously, Suzuki replaced Mamoru Oshii after Toho considered his ideas too radical, which makes The Legend of the Gold of Babylon the only time Suzuki was seen as the safe choice. He previously had a supervising director role during Lupin III’s 70s TV series. Animation and Suzuki go very well together, as his imagination is set free. It is an action film in which the animation serves to eliminate any preoccupation with gravity, animated bodies in movement floating inside the frame. Each of the major blocs of action find new ways to expand themselves a little more.

Yumeji (1991)
This biography of painter and poet Yumeji Takehisa made ten years after Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za serves to close a loose trilogy on the historical period that follow the same formal principles and observations on Japan’s early 20cth changes. Despite Yumeji’s life serving as a starting point, the phantasmagoric quality is even more pronounced on this one, with every action taken a larger symbolic value. It includes some of the most remarkable images of Suzuki’s cinema.

Kekkun (1993)
This is a trilogy for which Suzuki contributed a satirical 40 minute take on marriage ceremonies. It is like Suzuki is having fun carnivalizing a Juzo Itami film. It is anchored by strong performances, far from essential, but his pleasure is clear.

Pistol Opera (2001)
Suzuki revisits Branded to Kill by way of his late films. It is a film that covers his whole filmography with immense freedom. As the title suggests, it is a large opera of shootouts and colors. The main character is reimagined as a woman involved in the same hitman competitions of the previous movie, and Branded to Kill main character also returns to reinforce the self-referential tone. It is one of Suzuki major experiments on color and movement, a bloody musical with a lot of humor on Japanese competitiveness.

Princess Raccoon (2005)
Like Pistol Opera, Princess Raccoon is an operetta. Suzuki’s tendencies towards a theatrical staging finally abandons any subterfuge. Each image is both very elaborate and openly artificial. The editing reinforces the choreography of movements and the relationship between the actors and the theatrical sets. The legend of the title reinforces the essentialist character of the material. It is a more exposed and less cool Suzuki than Pistol Opera, but the two films combine very well together as his final word on cinema and its possibilities.

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3 Respostas para “Seijun Suzuki – An Annotated Filmography (1964-2005)

  1. smilethebeachboysloveyou

    Glad to see people are watching some of the rare films. One correction, though–The Gold of Babylon isn’t Seijun’s only work with animation–he was the supervising director of the Lupin III TV series for more than 100 episodes in the late 1970s, and he wrote a screenplay for one of the episodes in the mid-80s (around the same time as the film).

    Also, Cherry Blossoms in Spring wasn’t a TV film, it was part of a V-Cinema (direct-to-video) series that a video company made. All the videos had the subheading “Japonesque.” I don’t think the other films in the series were made by prominent directors, or that they’re available easily now.

  2. Filipe Furtado

    Thanks for the corrections, They are added to the text.

    I had no idea Suzuki had been previously involved with Lupin III..

    • smilethebeachboysloveyou

      Yes, he was the supervising director of Episodes 52-155 of the Lupin “Red Jacket” Series. Atsushi Yamatoya (screenwriter of A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS and FANG IN THE HOLE and co-screenwriter of BRANDED TO KILL and CAPONE CRIES A LOT) was also heavily involved. It’s also where Suzuki first collaborated with the screenwriter Yoshio Urasawa, who wrote the screenplays for KEKKON and PRINCESS RACCOON.

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