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DIRECTED BY: Seijun Suzuki
FEATURING: Toshiya Fujita, Yoshio Harada, Naoko Otani, Michiko Osuku, Kisako Makishi
PLOT: Two professors and a mysterious geisha form a bond that transcends life and death.
COMMENTS: In the West, Seijun Suzuki is primarily known for his hallucinatory 1960s thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, especially Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Over a decade later, however, Suzuki made a series of three period films set in Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1925). Filled with hallucinatory imagery, intoxicating period atmosphere, and ghostly ambience, in Japan these three films, known collectively as the Taisho Trilogy, are held in equal esteem with Suzuki’s early films; but they have been difficult to find in the U.S. until recently. Arrow Films gave them a limited release in 2017 in a lavish 6-disc DVD/Blu-ray box set, but now Arrow has streamlined both the size and cost of the set, finally putting these three hidden gems back into circulation as part of an affordable 3-disc Blu-ray box set. The extras from the previous set (which include introductions from critic Tony Rayn, a making-of featurette and a vintage interview with the late Seijun Suzuki) have all been carried over to the new release.
The Taisho era was a time of rapid modernization in Japan, but only in certain sectors of society, particularly the upper classes. Traditional ways of life and long-held superstitions about ghosts and spirits remained prevalent even as Western music, clothing, and technology began to seep into society. This is the world in which Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991) take place. Zigeunerweisen opens with two men listening to a 10-inch gramophone recording of the titular “Zigeunerweisen,” a contemporary composition by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, in which a voice is heard saying something unintelligible. They note that hearing this almost inaudible voice is more interesting than the music itself—it’s the voice of someone they’ve never met, the unintentional preservation of an everyday moment which occurred halfway around the world.
The recording will appear again, but it’s not the only case in which characters will be haunted by disembodied voices. Ghosts are very present in the lives of Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a German professor at a military academy, and Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s former colleague and vagabond friend. After parting ways when Nakasogo quit the academy to become a drifter, the two meet in a seaside town where Nakasogo seems to have been involved in the death of a local woman. Suzuki introduces Nakagoso with a feverish montage of close-ups, emphasizing his unkempt good looks and wild man charisma. We then see the a woman lying dead on the ground; a red crab appears from between her legs and fills the screen.
After Aochi helps Nakasago escape from the police and local mob, the two retreat to a local inn, where they entice a mourning geisha (Naoko Otani) to entertain them. Nakasogo is fascinated with her story of her brother’s suicide by poison, and how his white bones turned to pink ashes after being cremated. Nakasogo’s subsequent obsession with bones becomes a central theme throughout the film. He even coerces Aochi into making a pact that whoever dies first will donate their bones to the other.
There are many subplots and suggestions of supernatural intrigue throughout Zigeunerweisen, but it remains mostly submerged beneath the surface, more subtly felt than explicitly expressed. Nakasogo is often insinuated to be a demon in human form, and his secret encounters with Aochi’s wife (Michiyo Okusu) seem to take place in a parallel dream reality. One exception is an early sequence in which Aochi meets Nakasogo’s new wife (also played by Otani) and is enticed into coming back to her house, where a red light ominously flashes and time seems to stand still; Nakasogo’s wife slyly admits that she might be a fox (a common deceiver of humans in Japanese traditional mythology). The film’s chilling climax echoes this scene, bringing the story full circle and finally allowing its supernatural undertones to emerge fully formed.
Even earlier in his career, Suzuki was never a very effective storyteller. As lurid and visually stunning as his 1960s gangster films might be, they’re often unevenly paced and confusing, especially in the case of his hallucinatory tour-de-force Branded to Kill, which was considered so incomprehensible that he was effectively blacklisted from making films in Japan for over 10 years. Zigeunerweisen isn’t quite as difficult to parse out, but even though the running time is longer and the pace is slower, this is still classic Suzuki. The lack of tight storytelling and conventional horror techniques is made up for with imaginative visuals, feverish hallucinations, and a sophisticated sense of the supernatural, which is consistent with Japanese culture and the era in which the film takes place. A fascinating ghost story from the master of surreal Japanese crime thrillers.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[W]ith Zigeunerweisen—shot in 1980, after Suzuki took a 10-year break from directing—Suzuki retires the cumbersome plots and predictable settings of his genre films, and lends his bizarre, outrageous, and completely visual language to a bona fide art film.” – John Behling, Slant Magazine