Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty) 1958

Maverick. Rebel. Iconoclast. These are all words used to describe Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. Championed by a slew of filmmakers, critics, and cinephiles his work not only challenged Japanese notions of proper behavior, sexuality, and gender roles but his films attacked the very core of Western storytelling techniques. Many of his best films forego the safety net of a classic three-act story structure preferring instead to build his pictures out of flamboyant set pieces, idiosyncratic characters, and a loose improvisatory shooting style that often frustrated viewers who were weaned on predictable Hollywood fare. Like his American counterparts, Frank Tashlin and Samuel Fuller, Suzuki never lost his anarchic spirit even if that meant alienating his audience.

Before the elevation of his work to auteur status though Seijun Suzuki was just another fledgling director for Nikkatsu studios. Working first at Shochiku as an assistant director Suzuki spent seven uneventful years not doing anything particularly worthwhile. It was only after Nikkatsu studios reopened its doors and put a call out to all the major studios for new talent that Suzuki was lured away from Shochiku with the promise of advancement and a substantial pay raise. Although relegated to directing B-pictures for Nikkatsu the low budgets and quick production turnaround taught Suzuki how to make the most of the resources available to him. In fact, the great maverick director needed the stability and security of the Japanese studio system in order to develop his unique brand of postmodern surrealism.

To describe a Seijun Suzuki film one must first establish that Suzuki’s cinema is one where any expectations for narrative plausibility must be thrown out the door. His is a cinema of sensation; both in the tabloid sense of the word and as the feeling one would get while standing in front of an action painting by either Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. To appreciate one of Suzuki’s pictures it helps to be familiar with the genres he is toying with. In fact several of his films seem more like parodies of well-established genres. The only difference being that most film parodists are only concerned with getting a laugh whereas Suzuki is constantly asking his audience to question the intentions of the film artist working in a commercial business. To put it simply, if film is an art then why must the filmmaker be a servant to the audience, and if it is the filmmaker’s role to be just an entertainer then why are they only allowed to use the same tired techniques that have been around since the days of Griffith to tell a story? Finally one must also take into account when discussing Suzuki’s work that as groundbreaking and borderless as his cinema is a Seijun Suzuki picture is indebted to Japanese culture and the complicated history it’s had with the West ever since the Second World War.

For his seventh feature Suzuki not only adopted the Cinemascope frame but he also appropriated the aesthetics of German Expressionism. Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty) is a crime drama that, in terms of style, outclasses many of the American noirs that Suzuki borrows from. The basic premise for the story comes straight out of the B-picture playbook: just released gangster Miyamoto, played by Michitaro Mizushima, retrieves a trio of diamonds he hid away before going to jail as a way to repay a debt he owes to his friend Mihara (Hideaki Nitani), who was crippled during the heist to steal them. Of course like any true crime drama betrayal is always an ever-present danger and usually punctuates the end of the first act. In Suzuki’s picture betrayal comes in the form of Miyamoto’s old gang who’ve embraced Western capitalism while at the same time adopting the faux-traditions of the yakuza code. Unlike the typical characters found in the American crime pictures of the 40’s and 50’s Miyamoto is neither alienated from his surroundings nor is he in some quest to right a wrong. Instead he is motivated by the Japanese concept of giri, which when translated into English means duty or social obligation. Since it was Miyamoto who dragged Mihara into helping him pull off the heist then it is Miyamoto who must assume personal responsibility for Mihara’s crippling. Even after Mihara’s death the debt Miyamoto owes cannot be canceled it is only transferred from Mihara to his younger sister Akiko, played by Mari Shiraki.

With the exception of Mihara the character of Miyamoto is the most traditional character in the story. Whereas his old gang flaunt pricey suits and an array of high-powered submachine guns and pistols Miyamoto looks like he just stepped out of a Warner Bros. gangster picture. His outfit echoes James Cagney’s costume in White Heat, his fedora links him to the detectives of the private eye genre, and his gait echoes the confident stride of Humphrey Bogart. By linking Miyamoto to the idealized tough guy archetypes of Cagney and Bogart Suzuki makes it plainly obvious to the viewer that Miyamoto is a walking anachronism. In 1950’s era Japan when the economic miracle was still several years away and the streets were clogged with US service men, a constant reminder to the Japanese populace of their humiliating defeat during the war, the concepts of giri and ninjo were looked upon as unrealistic virtues to follow. By making the character of Miyamoto a synthesis of Western genre tropes and Eastern virtues the actor Michitaro Mizushima and director Seijun Suzuki create a distinctly Japanese character that was created out of the social and psychological tensions brewing in Japan at that time.

Other then Miyamoto the only other multi-dimensional character in the film is Akiko. Like many auteurs, Suzuki has a set number of stylistic and thematic obsessions that he constantly returns to in film after film. Akiko is a typical Suzuki female in that she uses her body, more specifically her sexuality, to survive and this trait in effect makes her a much stronger and more independent character compared to her male counterparts who are hampered by their greed or blind devotion to social codes. In fact, Akiko can be seen as the prototype for later Suzuki females that you’d find in Nikutai No Mon (Gate of Flesh), Shunpu Den (Story of a Prostitute), and Koroshi No Rakuin (Branded to Kill). Instead of wearing a traditional Japanese kimono or yukata Akiko is dressed in tight black capri pants, matching long sleeve turtleneck, a white smock-frock jacket, and ballerina shoes. She is the epitome of modern fashion and in fact minus a black beret she is decked out in full beatnik regalia. Just as Miyamoto’s costume identifies him with the 30’s tough guy archetype Akiko’s modish fashion statement links her with the juvenile delinquency films that were popular in America, Europe, and Japan during the 1950’s. Unlike the female characters in those films though Akiko is not riddled with angst. In a way Akiko represents the new Japanese spirit of revitalization. Even though she has lost her entire family, just as many Japanese families had during the war, she retains her optimism and independence. The trauma of loss does not crush her spirit, but rather fuels her to overcome the obstacles in her way and become even stronger.

Also, unlike the female characters found in American romantic comedies or juvenile delinquency pictures Suzuki establishes right off the bat that Akiko is sexually active and doesn’t make a big deal about it. Whereas an American film of that time might demonize its female characters for engaging in premarital sex, show them to be suffering some clash of conscience, or punish them in some way Suzuki foregoes such melodramatic affectations. In the film Akiko dances, drinks, flirts, models for, talks to, and enjoys the company of American soldiers, Japanese playboys, and her phony artist/sculptor boyfriend not because of some sanctimonious quest to find a husband but because she is full of life and she won’t allow society to have sole control of her sexual organs. Suzuki shows through the character of Akiko that the new Japan born from the ashes of the Second World War would do well to not repeat the country’s previous mistakes in relegating women to second-class status. Instead of being defined by the men in her life Akiko makes decisions based on her own needs and wants. As a result of this Akiko is the most self-actualized person in the film. In fact the final scene of the film has a positively radiant Akiko standing on the balcony of Miyamoto’s hospital room smiling as she comments on the beauty of the weather and asking him if he doesn’t share the same sentiment about the day. She looks far off into the distance, ruminating about her future. To the top left of the frame hangs a birdcage with two songbirds sitting on a perch, content. Akiko has moved past the trauma of losing her brother and almost getting killed and is now ready to make a second go at living her life. Just as the Japanese during the postwar era would not allow themselves to be defined by the tragedies they’ve lived thru Akiko can only look optimistically forward towards the future, no matter how shaky it may be.

An interesting theme that Suzuki has running throughout the picture is the bastardization of the arts through commerce, in particular the visual arts and to be even more specific the cinema. The character of Arita, played by Shinsuke Ashida, is the personification of avarice and also an example of the artist poseur. In fact out of all the characters in the film Suzuki reserves all his hatred and contempt for Arita. Whereas Miyamoto’s old gang is portrayed as ruthless killers their actions are framed within the context of the crime drama. The Oyane gang serves as a dramatic foil for Miyamoto. And so their cruelty is always proportionate to Miyamoto’s innate humanity. Arita, on the other hand, is an absurdly vulgar and despicable figure in the story. His greed inadvertently leads to Mihara’s death, the crude vivisection of Mihara by Arita to retrieve the diamonds, and his feeble attempts to seduce and then assault Akiko all in a bid to capture at least one of the diamonds for himself. It’s a telling detail that Suzuki makes Arita a mannequin sculptor. The job bridges both the artistic world of Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo and Donatello and the crude Consumerism that at the time was just starting to take hold of in Japan. One can see the character of Arita as being a narrative device that Suzuki is using to comment on Nikkatsu studios viewpoint of the director being a mere factory worker churning out cheap flashy product to attract window shoppers into their stores, or in Suzuki’s case movie theaters. Arita’s singular drive to get a hold of the diamonds can be seen as a parallel to the commercial filmmakers blind ambition of scoring box office success with audience pleasing dreck. Both accomplishments would result in a certain amount of economic security, but the pursuit of either action leads to an individual’s gradual corruption. For Suzuki, an artist with no regard for the visual and narrative intricacies of film and was in it only for the money is a far greater evil than the killers and yakuza thugs that populate his films.

Although remarkably restrained for a Seijun Suzuki picture Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty) does offer the viewer flashes of auteurist brilliance. Just as he does in later films Suzuki frames his shots by using pillars, window frames, alleyways, and the stark architectural outlines of the surrounding urban environment as a makeshift proscenium arch. The artificial mise-en-scene lends the film an unreality that hearkens back to classic Japanese theater, specifically kabuki. The highly stylized drama of the kabuki play complements the Expressionist lighting that Suzuki and his cinematographer, Wataro Nakao, establish throughout the film. Nakao and Suzuki borrow heavily from Fritz Lang’s oeuvre and Karl Freund’s trademark lighting design. And the play of shadow and light helps elevate visually unexciting scenes into wonderfully enthralling tableaus. The final showdown at the Oyane gang’s headquarters is refreshing because of the decision to leave the viewer in the dark during a majority of the shootout. Every so often we see the flash of a light bulb being shot out, the metallic glint coming from the barrel of a gun, or maybe shafts of light cutting thru the inky darkness. By manipulating the information we get, Suzuki and his cinematographer make a tired convention of the crime drama into visual eye candy for cinephiles privy to the cinematic treats that watching a Seijun Suzuki film can offer.

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