Early Films of Seijun Suzuki
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For many cineastes—especially outside of Japan—director Seijun Suzuki is the reluctant master of the yakuza genre. His international fame and notoriety is solely based on two wildly original, inventive, and subversive films, Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). The latter film was so over-the-top and mind-boggling in its relentless deconstruction and lampooning of yakuza film clichés, that Suzuki was subsequently fired from working for the infamous Nikkatsu film studio (who along with Daiei Studio cranked out the majority of the yakuza films during the genre's heyday). Following his firing, Suzuki worked mainly in television, though he did return to theatrical filmmaking in 2001 with Pistol Opera, a static and disappointing remake of Branded to Kill with a female assassin standing in for the unforgettable chipmunk-faced Joe Shishido from the original.

However impressive Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill are—and they are still impressive after all these years—there are many other films in Suzuki's long career that are equally enjoyable, experimental, and downright exciting to watch. For sheer cinematic jazzing about and audaciousness, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill are hard to top. But the roots of Suzuki's prankishness and love of surrealism can easily be found in many of his earlier films, and it would be a shame for the viewer who perhaps knows only Suzuki's most notorious offerings to bypass what could unfortunately be perceived as his safer, tamer productions. The three films presented here from Home Vision Entertainment—Underworld Beauty (1958), Kanto Wanderer (1963), and Tattooed Life (1965)—are prime examples of a director honing his craft, taking chances, and still making fantastic entertainment.

Underworld Beauty is dynamic stuff. Fresh out of prison, steely-eyed gangster Miyamoto (Michitaro Muzushima) returns to the world outside and immediately fetches his loot of diamonds that he had safely stashed before he was nabbed by the cops. Miyamoto wants to make a clean life for himself, but he quickly finds that it's difficult keeping on the straight and narrow when his nature is so firmly of the yakuza way. And when Miyamoto's best friend, an old yakuza buddy who eventually went clean, winds up dead because of Miyamoto, he is forced to surreptitiously avenge the honor of his friend. Teamed up with his friend's daughter—the titular teenage beauty—Miyamoto eventually wages war against a rival yakuza boss who desperately wants the diamonds and winds up literally in the belly of the beast (a boiler room in the basement of the rival boss's hideout) where the battle of jingi (honor and humanity) ultimately plays out.

It doesn't take much stretch of the imagination to think that Warner Bros. could have made something like it back in the 1930s or 1940s. Beautifully filmed in stark black & white, the film is a hard-boiled treat for those who like tough anti-heroes, equally tough dames, and action-packed violence that would have made Bogart or Cagney reach for their heaters. It may not be the best indicator of the yakuza genre (Tattooed Life is a better example of what the genre can offer), but it nevertheless serves as a wonderful introduction to Suzuki's powerful storytelling.

With Kanto Wanderer, though, Suzuki really started to utilize many of the stylistic eccentricities that would later make him infamous. The film was also Suzuki's first real ninkyo eiga (chivalry film) and the first to specifically deal with the traditional yakuza themes of jingi and giri-ninjo (duty and human feelings). The storyline is simple enough: a young stalwart yakuza bodyguard must balance the honor he has for his gang with the feelings that he has for a friend who has run afoul of a rival gang. A template used over and over again by Nikkatsu, and a blueprint that could offer up great possibilities when a director such as Suzuki or Kinji Fukasaku got their steely swords into it.

Unfortunately, Kanto Wanderer doesn't hold up as well as some of Suzuki's other films. The pacing is sluggish and many of the scenes come off as uninspired—except for the explosive finale. But the film is important within the yakuza genre, as well as in Suzuki's topsy-turvy career. Kanto Wanderer was the first of Suzuki's films to move away drastically from naturalism to embrace a highly stylized aesthetic that bordered on surrealism while at the same time never abandoning the Kabuki tradition it was actually derived from. The final third of the film contains a startling use of color during the final showdown between our charismatic yet troubled yakuza hero, Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi), and rival yakuza thugs. Intended to reflect Katsuta's inner turmoil, the explosive use of bold red during the finale of the sword fight is bravura filmmaking and an unforgettable image in an otherwise disappointing film.

Tattooed Life, on the other hand, is a far more powerful and exciting beast to behold. Although it's even more melodramatic than Kanto Wanderer, Tattooed Life is also more colorful, vibrant, humorous, and oh so violent. In other words, dynamic yakuza cinema.

After the yakuza assassin Tetsu runs into some trouble trying to kill a rival yakuza boss and is subsequently saved by his younger brother Kenji (a sensitive, black-garbed artist), the two brothers flee for Manchuria to make new lives for themselves. But after the brothers get ripped-off trying to stowaway on a ship, they wind up having to work at a local mine in order to earn back the money stolen from them. Being that this is a yakuza film, things don't go well for the brothers, and when Tetsu's criminal identity is discovered, all hell breaks loose. The finale, with Tetsu systematically chopping, slashing, and skewering his way through a horde of sword-wielding yakuza, contains Suzuki's most delirious, hallucinatory visuals up to that point. It's not difficult to imagine Quentin Tarantino drooling over his monitor studying it for The Bride's acid-drenched samurai showdown against the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Tattooed Life was pretty much the end of the line for the prolific Suzuki. The following year, Tokyo Drifter would light the fuse and the year after that, Branded to Kill would detonate in theaters across the country, subsequently ending whatever further commercial possibilities Suzuki had in the genre. Unlike Kinji Fukasaku, who made some of his best films within the genre during the 1970s by embracing and accentuating the clichés of the yakuza tradition, amping up the neurosis, turmoil, and existentialism of his characters without really subverting the constraints of the films themselves (much as American auteur Michael Mann has re-imagined the modern crime film within the tradition of film noir), Suzuki could care less about his heroes' dilemmas. He's much too restless and devious to put his faith in the hands of his characters. In that respect, his prankishness is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard. The big difference, of course, was that Suzuki was always steadfastly a commercial filmmaker before he was an artistic terrorist. It was only when the tyrannical yoke of Nikkatsu became too confining that the terrorist Suzuki learned to build a bigger bomb.

Underworld Beauty, Kanto Wanderer, and Tattooed Life are now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in new digital transfers that have been enhanced for 16x9 televisions (aspect ratio: 2.35:1). Suggested retail price: $19.95 each. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.