August 2013, arsenal cinema

Seijun Suzuki


Seijun Suzuki (*1923), the eccentric genius of the Japanese studio system, started out at the Shochiku studio as an assistant director in 1946 before moving to Nikkatsu in 1954, where he made his directorial debut in 1956. At Nikkatsu, he was employed as a contract director, producing cheap B-movies in conveyor belt style for the double bills standard at the time. Suzuki countered the constant sameness of the scripts with stylistic determination and unbridled resourcefulness, creating genre films that pushed at the boundaries of convention. His irrepressible desire to experiment, carry out radical frenzies of destruction and break rules paired with his ironic distance to the laws of the Yakuza cosmos are the mark of a truly unmistakable filmmaker. He subverts genre conventions and frees them above all from their moral ballast, while his visually exuberant style is full of colorful excess, a predilection for motifs with a monochrome background, extreme camera shots and surreal situations. The heads of Nikkatsu, where he shot 40 films in just 12 years, found this all too colorful after a while and fired him after BRANDED TO KILL, arguing that his films were “incomprehensible”. He stopped working for ten years before returning in the 80s and 90s with the independently produced Taisho trilogy, in which he took formalization and aestheticization to new extremes.

RABU RETA (Love Letter, Japan 1959, 12. & 22.8.) Bar pianist Kozue is in love with Masao, who has retired to convalesce in a house in the mountains following a serious illness. An intensive exchange of letters ensues before the letters become less and less frequent and eventually peter out altogether. Worried by this development, Kozue heads to the mountains to see Masao. But he has changed so much in the interim that Kozue hardly recognizes him. A study on identity confusion and alienation in which Suzuki’s subsequent mastery of style is already evident.  

YAJU NO SEISHUN (Youth of the Beast, Japan 1963, 12. & 22.8.) is regarded as one of the works with which Suzuki made his breakthrough in 1963, the same year in which four films of his were released in theaters. Audience favorite Jo Shishido (hard to overlook due to his surgically enhanced chubby cheeks) plays the obdurate Mizuno, a mysterious intruder whose presence stirs up the Tokyo underworld. He succeeds in playing off two rival Yakuza gangs against one other in order to find out who killed his friend. Although the film begins in black and white, it quickly finds its way to the loud colors and rapid editing that became Suzuki's trademark. 

TANTEI JIMUSHO 23: KUTABARE AKUTO-DOMO (Detective Bureau 23: Go to Hell, Bastards!, Japan 1963, 3. & 23.8.) Two rival Yakuza gangs are caught up in the illegal weapons trade. In order to put a stop to their game, private detective Tajima (Jo Shishido) convinces the police to allow him to go undercover so that he can infiltrate the Hatano Yakuza family. Yet they obviously mistrust the newcomer, who has carry out different jobs again and again to prove his gangster integrity. A cool jazz score pervades the film, whose plot can hardly be followed, as is usually the case with Suzuki, with a musical sequence also suddenly appearing from thin air.

NIKUTAI NO MON (Gate of Flesh, Japan 1964, 6. & 15.8.) Tokyo after the 2nd World War. The city is ruins and its people are fighting for survival between black market deals and the occupying forces. Young Maya also sees no other option than to give herself over to prostitution. From now on, she shares her lodgings with four other woman, each of them clothed from head to toe in a different color, and enters into a pact with all four of them: sleeping with a man without charging payment is to be violently punished. Suzuki’s adaptation of Taijiro Tamura's successful novel from 1947 is garish and drastic, staged with an artificiality and colorfulness that heightens the sense of degeneracy rather than concealing it. Between almost neorealist observations of everyday brutality and delirious, nightmarish images, the film reveals the chaotic nature of a world in which any form of hope or morals have been lost.

SHUNPUDEN (Story of a Prostitute, Japan 1965, 3. & 25.8.) After being disappointed by her lover, prostitute Harumi volunteers her services at the Manchurian front in 1937. Once there, brutal captain Narita soon regards her as his personal property, while Harumi falls in love with his subordinate Mikami. Her love is doomed to failure though in a universe of honor and power. With stylistic brilliance, Suzuki depicts a love story full of melodrama and tragedy in atmospheric black and white images.

IREZUMI ICHIDAI (Tattooed Life, Japan 1965, 24. & 28.8.) Yakuza Tetsutaro is supposed to carry out one last murder before he leaves the business. Yet this final contract is revealed to be a trap. It is his younger brother Kenji of all people who saves his life, for whose wellbeing Tetsutaro had go down the Yakuza path in the first place. Hunted by both the police and gangsters, they are forced to flee and find work at a construction company. It is there that their dangerous lifestyle is augmented by an impossible love story. The final shoot-out is executed in Suzuki's typical rush of colors, with the scene serving as inspiration for Tarantino in "Kill Bill 1".

KAWACHI KARUMEN (Carmen from Kawachi, Japan 1966, 21. & 27.8.) Young Tsuyuko is forced to realize with disgust that her mother has been prostituting herself to a priest in full view of her father in order to pay off the family debts. When Tsuyuko herself is raped in her small mountain village, she flees to Osaka and is plagued by nightmares. There she finds herself caught up in ever more bizarre jobs and relationships. Yet a reunion with her adolescent love allows old dreams of innocent happiness to reemerge. Suzuki blithely mixes social satire, caricature, farce and melodrama.

A gangster film in a pop art cosmos: TOKYO NAGAREMONO (Tokyo Drifter, Japan 1966, 10. & 31.8.) is perhaps Suzuki's most famous film. The hero Tetsu, the titular singing "Tokyo Drifter", wants to leave his Yakuza existence behind just as his past is catching up with him. Yet the routinely confusing plot is anyway nothing more than an excuse for Suzuki to create wild visual worlds of aestheticized violence, absurd comedy, visual gags, unparalleled excesses of color and confusing image compositions. An absolute classic of the genre in which everything is destroyed that makes the genre what it is.

KENKA EREJI (Fighting Elegy, Japan 1966, 17. & 26.8.) Japan in the 30s. Schoolboy Kiroku is in love with Michiko, who he reveres as the very image of purity and who appears far too unobtainable for him to try and woo her. He instead channels his intense feelings and racing hormones into joining a gang which meets up regularly for fights. Disturbing excesses of violence are thus connected with a tender love story and subversive comedy stands side by side with Japanese ultranationalism. Perhaps the most ambitious work from Suzuki’s early phase is also his most explicit and shows in exemplary fashion the militarization and political radicalization of a young man on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War.

KOROSHI NO RAKUIN (Branded to Kill, Japan 1967, 2. & 24.8.) was the film that led to the final break with Nikkatsu and likely marks the outer reaches of what is possible in genre cinema. Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido) is killer no. 3 in Tokyo’s underworld and is obsessed by the desire to become the no. 1. When he screws up a contract after a butterfly lands on his gun barrel, he ends up having the true number 1 on his hands and can now move on to the decisive duel. A hero who is turned on by the smell of cooking rice, a fragmentary and elliptical narration, a set of visual fireworks without compare - KOROSHI NO RAKUIN is Suzuki at his best.

TSIGOINERUWAIZEN (Zigeunerweisen, Japan 1980, 4. & 9.8.) is the first part of the 20s-era Taisho trilogy. Aochi, a German professor, meets Nakasago, a colleague from his student days, whilst on holiday, the latter of whom spends his time wandering across the country without a fixed goal. Together, they get to know a geisha. Months later, Aocki is forced to realize that Nakasago’s wife bears a strikingly resemblance to this geisha, while Aochi’s wife is also involved in the bizarre network of relationships that subsequently develops. Framed by the titular melody by Sarasate, Suzuki creates a hypnotic, surreal visual poem in which decadence is coupled with the spirit and the irrational. Japanese critics voted TSIGOINERUWAIZEN the best Japanese film of the 80s.

KAGERO-ZA (Heat Shimmer Theater, Japan 1981, 5. & 13.8.), the second part of the Taisho trilogy, is a hallucinatory rush that moves between reality and dream and madness and fantasy as it constantly shifts within space and time. Dramatist Shunko begins a relationship with the beautiful Shinako, who he initially believes is his benefactor’s wife of the same name. He then meets Ine, who bears striking resemblance to Shinako, and finds out that his benefactor used to have a wife called Ine who died sometime before. As a net of persecution anxiety and sexual obsession begins to tighten around Shunko, the tenuous link to reality is finally sundered.

YUMEJI (Japan 1991, 7. & 19.8.) Like in the two previous films of the Taisho trilogy, the protagonist of YUMEJI is also confronted with a mystery that revolves around seduction, love and death. The film begins with a nightmare had by painter Yumeji Takehisa in which he dreams that he is caught up in a deadly duel over a woman. As he goes to meet his real life lover later on, he becomes the witness of a shooting: a man has caught his wife and her lover in flagrante and killed both of them. Yumeji is forced to admit that the murderer is the man from his dream.

In collaboration with the Japan Foundation Tokyo/Cologne. Thanks to Angela Ziegenbein.

arsenal cinema: Seijun Suzuki

07:00 pm Cinema 1


Shunpuden Story of a Prostitute Japan 1965
35 mm OV/EnS 96 min

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour – Cinema in Plural (2)

08:00 pm Cinema 2

The Connection

The Connection Shirley Clarke USA 1961
35 mm OV/GeS 103 min

arsenal cinema: Seijun Suzuki

09:00 pm Cinema 1

Tantei jimusho 23: kutabare akuto domo

Tantei jimusho 23: kutabare akuto domo
Detective Bureau 23: Go to Hell, Bastards Japan 1963
35 mm OV/EnS 89 min