The late Seijun Suzuki will be remembered as one of the most delirious, feral Japanese filmmakers of all time, not necessarily because of his entire cinematic output, but because of a few specific films that infuse noir with strains of psychedelia. Suzuki solidified his skills at Nikkatsu studios in the 1950s and 60s as a contract director assigned to crime movie shoot-em-ups, a specialty genre at that studio. This prolific outpouring of films sparked the careers of a number of now well known filmmakers, but the era reached its peak with three Suzuki films that increasingly broke the boundaries of traditional narrative form: Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967). His innovation is confirmed by Nikkatsu’s decision to fire him, resulting in his being blacklisted by the entire industry for ten years. Suzuki’s style of filmmaking was too frenetic, illogical, and anarchic for a major studio, but embraced by the leftist counterculture coincidentally forming around that time.
If asked to explain the plots of the three above-mentioned films, I would have a very difficult time. The reason they are so fascinating is because of the power that specific moments hold, a force that is actually weakened if the viewer attempts to fit them into traditional story structures. Essentially, all three of them have to do with gangsters and/or corrupt police officers who spend their time dashing through hyper-colorful scenery with their demeanors turned up to about 110%.
Youth of the Beast has a plot that can’t even be boiled down to “good guys and bad guys.” The protagonist, played by the odd-looking Joe Shishido, is some kind of anti-hero, giving the audience someone to empathize with. The film is best explained by certain instances, characters, or moments. A dancer with a flamboyant pink boa emerges through a one-way mirror, all lights fading down except for the one on her; furthermore, one-way mirrors and transparent glass are used as floors and ceilings just as much as walls, making for uncanny visual perspectives that are only obscured by the absence of light. There is a suave, sadistic mob boss who wipes blood from his knife on the fur of his ever-present cat. In one scene, Joe lights a man’s head on fire with a lighter and hairspray. A gangster’s office is set up in a movie theater, seeming to be behind the screen. At one point a character states that Hideo, the boss’s brother is gay, although this information adds absolutely nothing to the film. The denouement involves Joe trapped, hanging upside down, yet still able to retrieve his gun and shoot to kill from that position. These moments are so unhinged and sublime, sometimes visible in one single action, like the man amongst an angry group of people who smashes a light bulb with the butt of his rifle as he exits.
Tokyo Drifter acts as a stylistic sequel to Youth of the Beast, although this time the film is full of repetitive scenes in which the theme song plays, both diegetically and extra-diegetically. Our hero is Tetsuo Watari, a humming loner in a light blue suit, who thinks that throwing his gun in the air to distract his opponents and running to catch it for the kill is a logical idea. Tokyo Drifter didn’t get Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu, but they took his privilege to use color film stock away for the next film. Apparently they didn’t like shoji screens turning from red to white in unexplainable ways. Some scenes from Suzuki’s other films seem like practice for Tokyo Drifter. During the final shootout in Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Joe Shishido inanely throws his handgun out of frame, only to run and pick it up later in the scene. In Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards (1963), the protagonist lapses into a song and dance routine with choreographed movement and lyrics. Perhaps the director had Watari check out those scenes in order to develop his singing gunslinger persona.
The psychedelia noted earlier turns out to be something different when examining the films more closely. As noted in Tom Vick’s recent book Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, the director was highly influenced by Kabuki theater. What initially appears to be mindless chaos from a Western viewing perspective is actually traditional Japanese theater applied to B-movie gangster films. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily “make sense” of the material, but at least gives an explanation for how it came about. While countercultural hippies and beatniks were dropping acid all over the world, Suzuki didn’t need drugs. He had Kabuki. Vick states,
Even what has been identified in his work as avant-garde, modernist, postmodernist, or somewhere in between has deep roots in Japanese aesthetic traditions that Suzuki, a Kabuki and ukiyo-e enthusiast and reader of Japanese classics often knowingly employed” (111).
This explains the highly theatrical and often minimalist sets, exemplified by the climactic location in Tokyo Drifter. It is a cabaret house by explanation only, in actuality being a bunch of walls, risers, and fake columns that gain character by changing color via filtered light. The quality of acting in most Suzuki films is unbelievable and highly stylized. Sometimes spotlights and other devices indicative of theater come into play.
Branded to Kill, the final straw of Suzuki’s studio career, provides just as much visual stylization and over the top gangster antics as the previous two films, delivering regardless of its black and white cinematography. A number of optical effects are used, indicating that the director’s innovations were not only influenced by Kabuki. Strange bird patterns, comic book style rain, birds and butterflies overwhelm the viewer during the film’s most deconstructed moment; it is almost like a musical break down or drum solo that quickly picks back up into the predominant rhythm of the movie. He also uses 16mm film projected upon characters, and brief scenes using the actual negative image of the film.
What Branded to Kill provides—in addition to most of Suzuki’s films—is an absurdist comedy element melded in with the action and violence. Hanada, our protagonist (once again, Joe Shishido), is turned on by the smell of boiling rice, something that makes him a pervert in the eyes of his wife. In one scene he assassinates a gangster by lying atop a hot air balloon rising outside the victim’s window. Later, Hanada, the #3 assassin sits handcuffed to #1, both bound together, waiting for the other to strike for so long that urine drips down #1’s pant leg.
In Suzuki’s films, violence is often hilarious. This approach works because the violence is usually completely artificial. The blood is too red. The throes of death that characters go through are extremely over-acted. In addition to Kabuki influence, Suzuki also arranged wild scenes that could be considered post-modern, although he probably did not even know the term. His characters antics parodied the average gangster movie, making fun of the hyper-masculinity and honor tropes while just as much reveling in them. His amusing excesses of violence are comparable to surrealist filmmakers like Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, who sometimes go beyond the pale into worlds of psychotic laughter and lamentations over contemporary society.
There are a number of other notable works in Suzuki’s filmography, from the more overtly political Gate of Flesh (1964) and Fighting Elegy (1966), to the highly meditative Taisho trilogy—Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-Za (1981), and Yumeji (1991). This focus on the most frenetic examples of the director’s oeuvre is partially a review of wild entertainment while simultaneously bringing to mind that this very approach to filmmaking—intuitive, brash, even zany—holds great political significance in itself. With Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter, and Branded to Kill, Suzuki was actively working on destroying any kind of traditional film form in order to create new ways for audiences to see and feel. This move brings the yakuza genre into a weird mythological state where the characters and what they represent are abstracted in order to consider why these kinds of films are being made in the first place. All the while, the characters are romping, singing, and shooting through cinematic spaces full of laughter, sex, and boiling rice.