color 83 min.
Director: Seijun Suzuki
CLV: $49.95 - available
1 disc, catalog # CC1514L
VHS: available from Home Vision Cinema
To experience a film by Japanese B movie visionary Suzuki Seijun is to
experience Japanese cinema in all its frenzied, voluptuous excess. Born
in Tokyo in 1923, Suzuki is best known for a cycle of extraordinary yakuza
(gangster) movies he shot during the '60s, movies teaming with stone-faced
killers, tough whores and unforgettable femmes fatales. Borm Suzuki Seitaro,
the director renamed himself Suzuki Seijun in 1958, two years after starting
work for Japan's oldest studio, Nikkatsu, where he churned out B movies
such as Satan's Town, Young Breasts, The Naked Girl and
the Gun, and the florid melodrama, Love Letter. A heartfelt,
Sirk-like bauble frothing with style, Love Letter showed a director
beginning to strain against genre convention; four years later that strain
had turned into a full-scale revolt. In 1963, Suzuki began a series of remarkable
features for Nikkatsu, each roiling with moments of pure delerium characterized
by blasts of lurid color, goofball humor, helter-skelter angles and the
director's own barely restrained contempt for conformity.
Suzuki's films made money and enjoyed some critical attention, but Nikkatsu
grew increasingly irratated with the director's flights of outrageous fancy.
In 1966, the studio ordered him to toe the aesthetic line with Tokyo
Drifter, an ostensibly routine potboiler about a recently retired yakuza.
The result is thrilling -- a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, fantasia in which
the hero gangsters, Tetsu (Watari Tetsuya, who pouts as beautifully as he
fights) tries to go straight but is thwarted by his former rivals every
step of the way.
No wonder Suzuki went nuts: in a sense, he was shooting his own autobiography.
From its opening melee (tinted a bilious green) to its last showdown (which
looks like an outtake from a late-era MGM musical), Tokyo Drifter
astonishes with style, even as it hammers home points about the struggle
of individualism. Suzuki made just two more pictures for Nikkatsu, Fighting
Elegy and Branded to Kill, after which the studio fired him for
making "incomprehensible" movies. The director won a lawsuit against
Nikkatsu a few years later, and has since gone on to direct five independently
financed features, including the critically acclaimed Zigeunerweisen.
One of the ironies about Suzuki is that he and other Japanese B directors
have been neglected in the West for many years, in part because of the critical
favor lavished on specific Japanese auteurs, including Ozu and Mizoguchi.
One of Japan's leading critics, Todao Sato, however, makes a strong case
for Suzuki as an auteur in his own right. Dubbing him a gesakusha,
"a humorist whose roots date back to the popular comical liturature
of the Edo period," Sato locates radical logic in the director's wild
style. Like others of his wartime generation, Suzuki took refuge from Japan's
militarism in a doctrine of mutability. "For Suzuki Seijun, who had
lived amid annihilation, it was necessary to virw oneself objectively, even
to the point where mutability appeared pathetic and humorous at the same
time." Adds Saro, "it was even necessary to discover a certain
masochistic pleasure in the abnormal experience that shook one's core,"
which is why his best films resemble a "masochistic cartoon."
High praise indeed.
Manohla Dargis is the film editor for the LA Weekly.
Hondo Tetsuya ... Watari Tetsuya
Chiharu ... Matsubara Chieko
Aizawa Kenji ... Nitani Hideaki
Tatsuzo ... Kawachi Tamio
Keiichi ... Yoshida Tsuyoshi
Kurata ... Kita Ryuji
Director ... Suzuki Seijun
Producer ... Nakagawa Tetsuro
Screenwriter ... Kawauchi Yasunori
Cinematographer ... Mine Shigeyoshi
Editor ... Inoue Shinya
Production Designer ... Kimura Takeo
Assistant Director ... Kuzuu Masami
Music ... Kaburagi So
ABOUT THE TRANSFER
Criterion presents the American premiere in a lush color transfer from
the original Nikkatsu-scope master.