Seijun Suzuki, 1923 - 2017
The cult director was 93.
In November 2015, Tom Vick's Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, the first book-length study of his work in English, appeared and essentially set out on a book tour accompanied by a retrospective that travelled North America throughout last year. Writing for Film Comment, Marc Walkow traced the slow-motion awakening outside of Japan to the bounty of Suzuki's oeuvre, starting with faint rumblings in 90s before taking off in the mid-2000s.
Walkow noted that the retrospective was "especially welcome in that it covers his early pulp movies and his mid-period, studio-bound experiments (including his final few titles for Nikkatsu), as well as films produced during his comeback years, which include both oddball commercial one-offs and more serious works aimed deliberately at an art-house or international festival audience. As important as it is to finally dispense with the assertion that Suzuki was the only artistic filmmaker at Nikkatsu during their heyday, it’s also imperative to look beyond the films which supported the theory of Suzuki’s 'frenzied, voluptuous excess' (to quote one critic)—which, in reality, exists in only a handful of his works and can just as easily be found in films by other directors of the era. So while Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, for example, are as wonderful and thrilling as ever, there are also many other films deserving of audience attention."
"Suzuki's earliest films were his most conventional," writes Ned Lannamann in the Stranger. "1963's Youth of the Beast is a perfect encapsulation, a yakuza crime picture that uses both black-and-white and color photography, wallowing in the artifice of filmed reality via the vivacity of 1960s pop-art tropes…. A decade of being blacklisted refined Suzuki's skewed worldview. His late-period Taisho Roman Trilogy contains relatively polite period pictures instead of the action-packed yakuza movies that came before. 1980's Zigeunerweisen is soft, poetic, slow, and sorrowful, even as its story is almost impossible to follow in any traditional sense."
In the New York Times, Mike Hale notes that Vick "says that one of his book’s goals is 'to rescue Suzuki from his reputation in the West as a figurehead of "extreme" cinema.' Which is not to say that a movie like A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977), Mr. Suzuki’s comeback picture after the Nikkatsu debacle, isn’t extreme in its own way. Anticipating The King of Comedy by five years, it’s a pitch-black satire about the wages of fame." Princess Raccoon (2005) would be Suzuki's last film, and "few directors will have gone out on a higher, or more offbeat, note."
Updates: "It almost goes without saying that Quentin Tarantino is a fan of the 83-year-old director," wrote Steve Rose in a profile for the Guardian in 2006. "Baz Luhrmann described him as 'a director who seems to have known the future before it happened.' You can see his influence in the works of Hong Kong stylists such as Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo, and in the ultimate accolade, indie overlord Jim Jarmusch even ripped off his film Branded to Kill wholesale. Given the number and spread of his disciples, you could be forgiven for wondering if his omission from the history books wasn't part of some odd conspiracy."
"Discussing Branded to Kill in an essay for the Criterion Collection reissue, American musician John Zorn wrote about how he happened to discover the film while watching late-night TV in 1984," notes Bill Chappell, writing for NPR. "'I was not at all prepared for what I was about to see, and I remember spending much of the following hour or so riveted to the screen with my mouth open,' Zorn wrote. 'That night changed my life and set me on a journey to explore the darker side of a culture known predominantly for its classical beauty.'"
Patrick Frater in Variety: "Asked by a reporter if he wanted to work until his end, Suzuki once replied: 'It’s better to die like an ordinary person. Dying on the job just causes problems for those around you.'"
For IndieWire's David Ehrlich, Suzuki "was the Jackson Pollock of Japanese cinema, an irrepressibly creative artist who painted with gobs of color and geysers of fake blood in order to defy the strictures of narrative and remind viewers that movies are more than the stories they tell…. Few directors ever did more to fundamentally demolish our understanding of what film could be, and even fewer did so while working under the auspices of a major production studio."
"Suzuki’s direct engagement with the world of anime came in 1985 with the Lupin III movie Legend of the Gold of Babylon," writes Jasper Sharp for All the Anime. "In an ironic turn of fate, the fact that Babylon was a Suzuki film would come to haunt it, as his rising profile abroad led the producers to up the price for its rights. Compared to other films in the anime franchise, it became oddly expensive, a fact which kept it out of some territories for many years…. Although he was often dismissive of his early works, Suzuki’s life and the legacy of the 50 titles he’s left behind him, have proven a massive influence on many contemporary Japanese filmmakers. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a world without him."
Dennis Lim for the New York Times: "Western critics have likened Mr. Suzuki’s psychedelic style to contemporaneous movements like free jazz and Pop Art, but he credited the influence of a more traditional—and decidedly Japanese—form: kabuki theater. The proportions of CinemaScope, the wide-screen format that Mr. Suzuki often used, resemble the long rectangle of the kabuki stage, and the brazen theatricality of his films—the intense colors, artificial lighting and heightened acting—are suggestive of kabuki techniques."
Update, 2/23: Writing for Vulture, Emily Yoshida notes that "his late-career status as an important artist never changed Suzuki’s image of himself, which was always stubbornly unpretentious, more suited to the predictable structure of the studio system than the life of an independent writer-director…. It’s notable that even after all the bad blood, Nikkatsu issued the announcement of his death. It was his true home, despite everything."
Updates, 2/25: Criterion presents a guide to its collection of essays on the films Suzuki made in the 60s.
And there's more from Jasper Sharp, here in the Guardian: "In his homeland, Suzuki is best remembered for his dramatic return to film-making with the independently produced Zigeunerweisen (1980). This hauntingly stylized and elliptical chamber piece, based on the novel Disk of Sarasate by Hyakken Uchida, was ranked by critics of the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine as the best film of the year. In it, when former colleagues are reunited by chance and their lives become intertwined, they share a recording of Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs and a fixation with a mysterious geisha. The film was the beginning of Suzuki’s Taisho trilogy, marked by a more art house sensibility; it continued with Heat-Haze Theatre (1981) and Yumeji (1991), and was so called because all three were set during the Taisho era (1912-26) of liberal enlightenment and new exposure to western technology and culture."
Update, 2/26: With an entry on Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Craig Keller launches a series: "I will celebrate the life of this remarkable director, whom I discovered in my early 20s by way of the original Criterion DVD releases of Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. If I recall I saw his penultimate film and penultimate masterpiece Pistol Opera four times in Seattle theaters on 35mm (1.37:1 original aspect ratio)—one of the greatest films of the 2000s."
Update, 3/1: "Suzuki himself identified The Bastard (Akutaro, 1963) as the 'turning point' in his career because it marked his first collaboration with the production designer Kimura Takeo, a star of Nikkatsu’s art department," writes Tony Rayns for Sight & Sound. "But Youth of the Beast (Yaju no Seishun, also made in 1963, immediately before Akutaro) was shot without Kimura’s help, and that was the movie in which Suzuki whipped up an unexplained sandstorm outside the room in which a sadist attacks a prostitute and had a gay yakuza park his pink limo under matching cherry blossoms…. Suzuki Seijun was quintessentially an artist who made his own light."
Update, 3/20: In the new issue of Senses of Cinema, Alexia Kannas argues that "the sometimes limiting effect [Branded to Kill] has had on the Suzuki canon never diminishes its gorgeously bizarre avant-garde take on film noir."