Seijun Suzuki’s quirky art style is an acquired taste, as the director cheekily admits that in his films, time and space are nonsense. Filmed in Ether describes it for Suzuki novices: “Take the pop-art styles of Quentin Tarantino, the messy bravado of Baz Luhrmann, the neon fever dreams of Nicolas Winding Refn and the liberal use of time and space of Wong Kar-wai, and throw all these elements on a single canvas. These directors and many more (John Woo, Takeshi Kitano, Jim Jarmusch and Damien Chazelle, to name a few) have admitted to being avid fans. Tarantino, for example, borrowed quite generously from the ingenious Japanese director to Kill Bill.
While Seijun Suzuki enjoyed worldwide recognition, amassing quite a cult following, in its home country, its characteristics remained largely unnoticed and misunderstood at the time of their release. The rebellious director was even expelled from the traditional Japanese film industry – ten years later he returned with a vengeance, reappearing victoriously on stage as a freelance author.
Despite this fight for artistic freedom, the antagonism of the major studios and the general indifference of the Japanese public, nowadays Seijun Suzuki is etched in the public imagination as a Japanese creator par excellence (in part because of the beautiful restorations of his Criterion Collection films). Film critic Manohla Dargis firmly states, “To experience a film by Japanese B-movie visionary Seijun Suzuki is to experience Japanese cinema in all its frenzied and voluptuous excess. These are Suzuki’s best movies.
5 Story of a prostitute
Reflecting on his wartime experiences, Suzuki explains that he couldn’t help but laugh – and so the signature marriage of graphic violence and awkwardness was born. He has also made films about war in particular, choosing an unexpected angle in Story of a prostitute (it’s definitely on brand for him): a female empowerment romance following a fierce, strong-willed girl who becomes a comfort woman in Manchuria during the Sino-Japanese War.
Prostitution is for her a deliberate act of revenge, and she turns out to be a tenacious and robust person, becoming an important figure in the camps, following her own code of values, much like the samurai, the yakuza or the men of the war. ‘army. Suzuki abandons historical accuracy: women, especially comfort women, had no voice at that time – to create a strange fantasy of power far ahead of its time; this may still be the case. Story of a prostitute perhaps setting a precedent for high revisionist exploitation films, something that would be cultivated by later directors, namely Tarantino.
4 Youth of the Beast
One of the greatest yakuza movies, the whimsical Youth of the Beast is considered the turning point in Suzuki’s career. After eight years of creating generic films for the studio machine, Suzuki, tired of the formula, let his artistic imagination run free, and his baroque, dreamlike style replaced the studio’s structured vision. Thus, his feud with Nikkatsu, the major studio in Japan at that time, began. Suzuki brightened up the low-budget low-brow genre with pop-art elegance and avant-garde theatrics, paving the way for the Japanese New Wave movement that challenged the great masters, like Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu. Youth of the Beast defined itself against the conventions of classical aesthetics and plots.
Suzuki gallivanted with the dizzying meta-narratives, interrupting a yakuza formula movie with a scene where it turns out thugs watched everything through the looking glass. It was his criticism and denigration of the genre, and he became a symbol of resistance during the Japanese student protests of the late 1960s.
Three years after his rather mediocre attempt to return to A story of heartbreak and sadnessSuzuki comes out with Zigeunerweisena supernatural melodrama set in 1920s Japan and an art house drama debut taishō trilogy, which also included Heat-Haze Theater and Yumeji. Adapted from the novel by Hyakken Uchida Disk of Sarasatethis film turned out to be a hauntingly beautiful auteur masterpiece that existed independently of Nikkatsu.
The film somehow follows two friends united by the song of Pablo de Sarasate Gypsy tunes and an obsession with an enigmatic geisha. Accompanied by the melancholy score for violin by de Sarasate, Zigeunerweisen is atypically slow and rich in dialogue for Suzuki, it is no longer a rebellion but a personal artistic exploration. This film became a critical and commercial success, noted by Kinema Junpo magazine as the best film of the year, and even won the Oscar for best film in Japan.
2 Marked to kill
The upside-down James Bond culmination of Suzuki’s restlessness and growing penchant for daring, complete subversion of tropes and absurd humor, resulted in the (at the time) underrated gem . Marked to kill. Later, this self-proclaimed surreal universe served as a major inspiration for Jim Jarmusch’s great film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol.2. At the time, it was the last straw for Nikkatsu, who called Suzuki’s films “incomprehensible”.
Already in the niche, Suzuki had to make the film on a limited budget, which meant, among everything else, a black and white picture. He decided to make a movie about Hanada, who is the third hitman in Japan. This placement suits him perfectly. He has a lot of money, a luxurious apartment, a beautiful wife and a passion for the smell of freshly cooked rice.
Marked to kill doesn’t feel like a cohesive story at all, but rather a convoluted combination of expressionist snippets, each tied to the main character’s personal life. All these vignettes gradually lead to chaos, where fantasy and reality mingle in a surrealist film that feeds on incongruity. Female nudity is surprisingly ambiguous. The sex scenes are naturalistic but devoid of passion. Murders are comical.
1 Tokyo Wanderer
Suzuki said the utter boredom of making cookie-cutter films drew him to the wall and forced him to experiment. His frustration with the claustrophobia genre arguably culminated in Tokyo Wanderer, a gonzo yakuza musical that led to its commercial peril. A surreal spaghetti western made Japanese parody full of cartoonish violence and go-go music follows a man who wants to leave the life of a yakuza behind, whistling the theme song and jumping into unexpected musical numbers.
Tokyo Wanderer is a pop art masterpiece, a cultural mirror of the shift from traditional high-value yakuza films to realistic, naturalistic films about corporate greed, poverty and disenchantment. A perfect illustration of change might just be a sardonic Sing in the rain performed in a saloon rendition of the Wild West. It’s hysterically funny and visually – a pure work of art.
Perfect for such a premise, Suzuki’s combination of gritty realism and psychedelic inanity creates a stunning visual experience that draws inspiration from traditional kabuki theater. The use of a widescreen anamorphic lens that required an adapter to be viewed in regular cinemas is a tribute to the hanamichi, the long and narrow kabuki stage, used as a gateway to the main stage but also where the important scenes took place. Intense colors, artificial lighting, and over-the-top acting are all part of the bold theatrics common to Suzuki’s films.
Nicolas Winding Refn claimed it was one of his favorite films; Tarantino cited it as his main reference for Kill Bill Vol.1; Damien Chazelle once said at a press conference in Tokyo that this was the inspiration behind The Earth: “Suzuki’s work is like a musical to me, but only with guns.” Tokyo Wanderer is a cultural resistance piece, endlessly referenced in cinema to this day, making Suzuki’s whimsical, anarchist, and groundbreaking oeuvre immortalized in pop culture.