Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Double Dose of Seijun Suzuki

Often these days when we speak of an “auteur,” we talk about a recognizable style used by a director over a series of films, an artistic imprint. But when the theory of auteurism was first posited, it was not only about identifying the common elements between an artist’s work, it was about the ability of a contract director to transform a studio project into a personal statement. Seijun Suzuki made a ton of studio assignments at Nikkatsu. Two such mid-60’s films are astonishing deconstructions of and participations in the yakuza genre, both starring Joe Shishido. The approach of Youth of the Beast (1963) bears about as much resemblance to Branded to Kill (1967) as With the Beatles does to Sgt. Pepper’s, but—like those landmark pop records—they are both brilliant examples of the form they ultimately transcend.

Youth o
f the Beast is a tweaking of the Red Harvest/Yojimbo plot and since it is so, it must establish its (anti-) hero as a real badass. To this end, immediately post-credits Joe Shishido, as “Jo,” goes on a rampage, kicking the hell out of a guy and then wiping his shoe off on him. Shishido’s performance ripples with intense physicality. He starts at full-bore and never downshifts throughout the entire film, at every moment threatening to explode violently onto his environs. Jo’s unpredictable savagery is so convincing that when it’s revealed that he used to be a cop, I almost had a hard time buying that he would’ve ever been able to control himself to that extent.

It is this rampant physical flamboyance that I most miss in Branded to Kill’s altogether more psychedelic and absurdist approach. The only connection I felt with Shishido’s No. 3 Killer was in the sequence detailing his unusual sexual proclivity. Not to say that I, too, am aroused by the smell of cooking rice and use it as an aphrodisiac. But this sequence renders an emotion and a physical process through striking visuals and maintains a closeness between viewer and character. Almost everywhere else in the film, I as a viewer am left distant and remote by the spare set design, detachment of the characters from their own emotions, and privileging of beauty over continuity in the visual realm. I am awed by the visual splendor of a flushing toilet bowl filled with swirling bloody water half-obscured by the corpse sprawled perfectly across it. But somehow my pleasure is tainted because this shot doesn’t match up with the one before it, of the body taking the bullet in the head. The film attempts no ligature to hold the cuts together and make me believe that the action I saw happen in one shot carried over to the composition of the following shot. Therefore, though the image is beautiful, it feels somehow unearned.

Youth of the Beast
doesn’t sacrifice any of its visual beauty for greater narrative coherence. Like the greatest genre films, it bends over backwards to accommodate the artistic desires of its creator within the framework of the generic plot it is supposedly concerned with. What I personally consider to be the most beautiful scene in any Suzuki film I’ve seen is a psychotically violent and warped version of something you would see in Sam Fuller or Anthony Mann. One of the more important of the many villains in the film whips his girlfriend, chasing her out onto the porch, a windstorm of epic proportions raging all around them. The scene isn’t there simply for beauty’s sake: the character of the man with the whip is reconsidered with the revelation of his sadistic sexual habits.

In Chris D.’s Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, Suzuki responds to a question about the aforementioned scene by saying, “There wasn’t anything like a symbolic meaning behind those artistic decisions. It was, in that case, how best to emphasize, to reinforce, that something bad was happening. In my moviemaking philosophy, there are three ways, all using natural elements, to make a film interesting: one is wind, two is rain, three is snow. For that particular scene, it seemed right to use the wind.”

Branded to Kill uses rain twice, in spectacularly different fashions, the film’s experimental structure keeping director Suzuki constantly questing for a more abstract, expressionist form of representation. The first time, Shishido is driving in a convertible in heavy downpour. We cut to a scene of shower sex, continuing the water theme. The other time, later in the film, Shishido is beset by a series of obstacles, each appearing as a stark animation laid over the black and white film image. Along with birds, there is the rain, depicted as white diagonal lines on a black background, some of the lines broken, most of them intact, extending across the length of the screen. It is the final break with reality in a film that never asks the viewer to believe that the actions taking place on screen have an analogue in the physical world. That Suzuki is able to do this utilizing one of the three natural elements he always turns to in order to “make a film interesting” is remarkable.

It is probably obvious that I prefer the more earthbound physicality of Youth of the Beast; my response to Branded to Kill, however, is a much more rich and complex one. I like the earlier film better and would say it is the more powerful film. Yet I can’t get Branded to Kill out of my mind. I am perplexed by the fact that all of the qualities causing me to feel disconnected from it are the same ones that would have drawn me to it ten years ago. In high school I was deeply interested in the Theatre of the Absurd, the work of Beckett and Ionesco, and the literature of such figures as Camus and Dostoyevsky. Had I seen this film then I would have seen in it what I was compelled by in these others works, and loved it. This, I know, says much more about me than it does about Suzuki or either of his films.

One further compare/contrast: Both films have scenes with black and white film projected onto a wall. In Youth of the Beast, shot in color, they are scenes from older gangster movies, and they make up the scenery in the office of one of the yakuza. The characters in our film don’t verbally comment on the characters in the other film, but the characters in the other film—by virtue of being their generic forefathers—comment visually on the characters in Suzuki’s film. In Branded to Kill, the film projected on a wall is in Shishido’s apartment, and it is a prominent part of the plot. His girlfriend has been kidnapped and the film shows her treatment at the hands of the perpetrators. Joe Shishido’s No. 3 Killer not only reacts to these images, flailing around and wailing, he attempts to interact with them as well, calling out to his girlfriend over and over, “Where are you?!” The viewer of the film may be similarly compelled to call out to the characters on the screen, “Where are you?”

This post is my entry into the Double-Bill-a-Thon being hosted over at Broken Projector.


Gautam said...

Ed- Great work! You really know what to look for in cinema, and you seem to understand Seijun Suzuki very well. Thanks for the contribution.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks, Gautam. It means a lot coming from someone whose own words are very often thought-provoking and insightful.

Cinebeats said...

Great piece Ed! These are two of my favorite Suzuki films and I always enjoy reading what others have to say about his work. He's an incredible director and I can watch his films over and over again and never get tired of them. Jo is also terrific and I enjoy watching him in just about anything.

Watching these back-to-back would be an amazing experience for anyone unfamiliar with Suzuki's work.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks for the kind words, Kimberly. It was actually your mention of YOUTH OF THE BEAST at Cinebeats a little while back that provoked me to give Suzuki a second look. I had seen PISTOL OPERA years ago and was both stunned and utterly baffled by it.

gautam said...

Ed! The 2nd edition of the Double Billathon begins tomorrow- hope to have you with us on this one!