Tag Archives: Seijun Suzuki

CAPSULE: TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tetsuya Watari, Tamio Kawaji, Ryuji Kita, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

PLOT: Tetsu tries to quit the yakuza life after his boss goes straight, but a rival gang leader wants the building they own—and Tetsu’s life.

Still from Tokyo Drifter (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a rare case of a movie being screened out by competition from its own maker. Had Seijun Suzuki never made Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter just might stand as the most unusual yakuza picture ever made (at least, until arrived on the scene). But Suzuki took his deconstruction of the genre so much farther the very next year that Tokyo Drifter, while a stunning visual achievement, seems conventional in Branded‘s wake. Unfair to Drifter, which should stand alone on its own strange merits? Perhaps, but these two films, made (almost) back-to-back and leading to Suzuki being blackballed from the Japanese film industry for genre rebellion, will always be linked together in film history—and Branded to Kill will always be remembered as “the weird one.” You are still advised to watch them both.

COMMENTS: A movie so cool they ripped off its title for a Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drifter is an exercise in pure style. Seijun Suzuki, bored with the generic gangster scripts Nikkatsu Studios kept giving him as a B-director, amuses himself with outlandish set pieces while deconstructing the genre before our very eyes. The plot is a standard tale of loyalty and betrayal, merely an outline for Suzuki to hang his experiments on. Scenes are clipped—for example, how does Tetsu appear in the driver’s seat of the kidnappers car, other than by magic? How is his showdown on the train tracks resolved? We never see him actually escape. How does he evade certain death time and time again, with Viper showing up each time to drive him to his next drifting destination? It all makes sense, but only mythologically. Tetsu is a heroic archetype, a chosen one, undefeatable but cursed to wander forever without satisfaction. Suzuki simply chooses to cut out a lot of inessential exposition and get right to the cool stuff. He gives us the elements of the myth without bothering with the logistics.

Whereas the followup film, Branded to Kill, is a record of haunted  characters and obsessive themes, Tokyo Drifter is a thrill ride of stylish moments. The film is suffused with comic book colors and Pop Art sensibilities, and magnificent sets inspired equally by German Expressionism and Surrealism. The prologue mixes black and white with color sequences (and one shot incorporating both color and monochrome). Tetsu is seldom caught without his stylish powder-blue suit, which remains unrumpled no matter how many tussles he gets into. His gun blazes with a bright pink muzzle flash. The soundtrack is cool, Bond-ish spy-jazz, with a “drifter” theme song for Tetsu (performed as a torch song by his chanteuse moll, and whistled by Tetsu to announce his presence). Tetsu’s is a world of alleyways of full of jazz bars advertising their disreputable wares with garish neon signs. In an Old West-themed saloon in a U.S. Navy town, he gets caught up in a brawl that turns into havoc-laced slapstick straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. What you’ll probably remember best are the sets: Kurata’s office, which has Roman frescoes on one wall, and an abstract red and white light sculpture on the opposite wall. Even more impressive is the Club Aires cabaret, where the wild finale happens. It features an Expressionist door mounted atop a staircase and a sculpture of a slender, Dali-esque figure hoisting a giant doughnut above his head. At night it’s a complete black void, except for a spotlight, a glowing white piano, and a glowing red torus. Drifter may not have made bank, but Tokyo Drift wishes it could be a fraction as groovy as its swinging forebear.

The Criterion Collection disc (DVD or Blu-ray) includes two Suzuki interviews and the original Japanese trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…kitted out with plot ellipses, bizarre sets and colour effects, inappropriate songs, absurd irrelevancies (nice hair-drier gags!), action scenes that verge on the abstract, and some visual jokes tottering precariously between slapstick and surrealism.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)

“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa

PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer.  He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim.  By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation.  Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre.  As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets.  Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films.  Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date.  Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.”  Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
  • Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up.  Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
  • The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
  • Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look.  This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
  • Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
  • Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle.  The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade.  Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic.  Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape.  But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.


Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)