Despite having influenced a whole generation of major directors, from Takashi Miike and John Woo to Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, Seijun Suzuki has remained a relatively unknown name in the West. While some of his followers have overused and even formulised the stylised violence, mischievous humour and fetishistic attention to detail that he introduced, Suzuki’s own films still look as alien and fresh as they did at the time they were made.
Hired by Nikkatsu Studios in the mid-fifties to make low-budget genre flicks, Suzuki soon began to develop a flamboyant, original style unpopular with his employers. Although his personal touch was already evident in such early output, Suzuki really upped the ante in 1963 with Youth of the Beast, a film which combined his trademark explosion of colours, hatchet editing style and unexpected leaps into the surreal – the club as fish tank scene remains one of the director’s most memorable moments. Three years later Suzuki was at the top of his game, firing a staggering three-shot salvo with Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy and Branded to Kill. Ironically, it was over Branded to Kill, a film that many consider his best, that Suzuki was fired by incensed Nikkatsu executives who thought the film ‘incomprehensible’.
The exuberant energy of Suzuki’s films as well as his audacious stylistic subversions sharply contrasted with the stifling subtlety of the previous generation’s filmmakers, affiliating him to the Japanese new wave. Just like the work of contemporary directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Yasuzo Masumura, Suzuki’s cinema is one of exacerbated emotion. However, rather than exploring human feelings and desires, it is with a purely aesthetic emotion that Suzuki concerns himself: the formulaic genre narratives he was forced to work with are simply excuses for increasingly daring visual feasts. In Tokyo Drifter, his pop art masterpiece, Suzuki gleefully dynamites the rules of the yakuza movie, paying scant attention to the stripped down plot and concentrating instead on creating saturated vignettes of bubblegum noir. The Tokyo Drifter of the title is a moody gangster decked in a powder blue skinny suit and spotless white shoes, condemned to lonely (if exquisitely elegant) wandering, forever fleeing the goons of a rival gang. From the villain to the girlfriend, from the gang’s back room to the teen club and the girlfriend’s bar, everything and everybody is colour-coded. In this perfect pop bubble a heightened, intensified kind of life is played out, its delirious beauty an antidote to the repressive kill-joy reality of contemporary Japan. Whether or not Suzuki knew about Alfred Hitchcock’s famous quip, it is clear that for him, too, a film is ‘a piece of cake’ rather than a ‘slice of life’.
As integral to Suzuki’s oeuvre as his ultra-pop aesthetic is his offbeat sense of humour. While there are many light-hearted moments, it is a humour that is more often than not absurd and sometimes even tinged with darkness. The comedy in the director’s work is never simply about entertaining his audience, but constitutes a vital part of his world view. Suzuki was drafted into the Japanese Army as a young man and this experience gave him a particular outlook on life: witnessing grimly comic rescue attempts and farcical corpse disposals in the war made him realise the incongruous, pathetic drollery of death. His is a Dadaist kind of humour, steeped in a keen awareness of the madness of men and the transience of life, laughing in the face of it all with a joyfully anarchic energy.
This spirit clearly shines through in Fighting Elegy. An irreverent anti-militaristic comedy that ends on a sombre note, it draws on Suzuki’s profound dislike of the warmongering Japan of his youth. The film paints a caustic picture of a Japanese society in which traditional views of masculinity force Kikuro, a sympathetic if naive youngster, to repress his emotions and constantly fight other youth gang members in order to prove that he’s a man. The film is played out as a comedy, and the fights, although extremely graphic, are also highly entertaining. Kikuro’s uncontrollable erections, which occur every time he thinks of the young piano-playing girl he has a crush on, are the occasion for a number of outrageous jokes. In one scene, Kikuro, aroused after fantasising about his sweetheart’s delicate hands, relieves himself by playing her piano in a rather unorthodox manner. However, the farcical nature of the film is undercut by the sharply downbeat ending, which shows Kikuro and the local gang members called up to go to war. That abrupt conclusion was added by Suzuki himself (it was not part of the novel the film was based on), making Fighting Elegy one of the most personally revealing films in the director’s oeuvre.
Suzuki’s sixties output culminated with Branded to Kill, in which he abandoned his lush colour palette to plunge deeper into oddball existential noir. The plot is even more condensed than in Tokyo Drifter, reduced here to a succession of duels between professional assassins competing to be the best. The chipmunk-faced Number 3 has to fend off a number of attacks until he finally faces Number 1 in a battle for the supreme title. Our hero, constantly fighting for survival, is tempted by the voluptuous appeal of death and annihilation in the form of a dangerously alluring female assassin who lives among dead insects. With a hero who kills an optician by firing a bullet through the sink’s plughole, gets off on the smell of boiling rice and has a breath-taking multi-position, multi-location romp with his treacherous wife, Branded to Kill is as wildly inventive in death as it is in sex.
This astonishing tour de force, however, not only earned Suzuki a dismissal from Nikkatsu but also ensured that no other studios would hire him. The eccentric director only returned to filmmaking in 2001 at the age of 78 with Pistol Opera. A sequel of sorts to Branded to Kill, it pitches a female Number 3 against a mysterious Number 1 in another deadly fight for the Guild’s top spot. Even more theatrical than Tokyo Drifter and with gorgeous colour compositions to rival it, focusing on an existential fight to the death as in Branded to Kill while sharing its disregard for narrative logic, Pistol Opera feels like a summation of Suzuki’s concerns. The dialogue itself, far more expansive and explicit than in the earlier films, is somewhat self-conscious: one of the assassins says she wants to die on stage like an actress; elsewhere the hero of Branded to Kill reappears (played by another actor) as the washed-out former Number 1, claiming that they, the killers, ‘make the impossible possible and make it into art’, something that could just as well apply to Suzuki’s own work. In the absurd theatre of life dying is no more than play acting and all that matters is that it should be beautifully choreographed. While Pistol Opera‘s explicit self-consciousness makes it a much less compelling experience than its predecessors, the over the top stage-set showdown provides the perfect finale to Suzuki’s ultra-aestheticized cinema (a much more appropriate end note than Suzuki’s last work to date, the rather indulgent musical Princess Raccoon).
Suzuki’s cinema encompasses a whole attitude to life: unlike some of the filmmakers that he has influenced, his work is not simply a case of style over substance. Instead, he strives for an intense aesthetic experience, in which achingly stylish elegance combined with playful humour is the only stance possible in the face of the absurd randomness of death.