As a cinema stylist Seijun Suzuki has no rival. Loyal only to his own artistic whims Suzuki’s filmography is replete with pictures that bear his trademark stamp. Categorized by many film scholars as subversive it is important to note that although many of his films undermine the predetermined genre conventions of the yakuza or crime picture it would be more accurate to place him with cinema’s great fetishists; i.e. Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Wong Kar-Wai. Each frame in a Seijun Suzuki picture is carefully constructed. And it’s no exaggeration to state that a major part of what made Suzuki such a critical darling in the film community was the art direction. In fact, many of his films stretching as far back as the 1963 picture Akutaro (The Bastard) till the completion of Kenka Erejii (Fighting Elegy) in 1966 all had the same production designer, Takeo Kimura.
In Suzuki’s own words: “It was with Kimura that I began to work on ways of making the fundamental illusion of cinema more powerful.” And so it was with Kimura’s help that many of the visual tropes that would later be identified as trademark Suzuki were made possible because of Kimura’s great eye for detail. Of course this acuity for dynamic frame compositions and a pathological disregard for cinematic convention would ultimately lead to Suzuki being blacklisted by every major film studio in Japan; many of whom were not amused by his art house pretensions.
This antagonism between Suzuki and Nikkatsu studios can be traced to the director’s disdain for the assembly-line mentality that his bosses had when it came to directing a Nikkatsu B-picture. As Tony Rayns states in Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun, “In his own eyes, the visual and structural qualities of his ‘60s genre films sprang from a mixture of boredom (‘All company scripts were so similar; if I found a single line that was original, I could see room to do something with it’) and self preservation (‘Since all of us contract directors were working from identical scripts, it was important to find a way of standing out from the crowd’).”
The first signs of the growing strain between Suzuki and Nikkatsu began in 1965 during production of his thirty-sixth film, Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life). Although ostensibly a ninkyo-eiga Suzuki uses the structure of the “chivalry film” itself to not only show the limitations of the yakuza genre but also the shortcomings of the culture that gave birth to this specific brand of cinema. Saddled with a conventional pulp narrative Suzuki is merciless as he not only deconstructs the yakuza persona but also attacks the Japanese mindset during their most imperialistic.
It is no coincidence that Suzuki places the plot of Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) within the context of the Showa era. For those not familiar with Japanese history the Showa era corresponds to the reign of Emperor Hirohito who ascended to the throne in 1926 and ruled, be it only as a figurehead, till 1989. The Showa period encompassed several important milestones in Japan’s history. And under Hirohito’s reign, Japan during the first half of the twentieth century would be torn asunder by ultra-nationalistic elements within the government ultimately culminating in the country’s eventual defeat by Allied forces during the Second World War.
Suzuki sets his story in year one of the Showa era, and he makes it explicitly apparent to his audience that Manchuria is a nation that will play an important role in Japan’s imperialist ambitions. In the film Suzuki has his two protagonists Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) and Kenji (Kotobuki Hananomoto) trying to flee Japan for Manchuria to escape reprisal from a rival gang after a series of killings leaves both brothers guilty of murder. By setting the action within a Japanese port town Suzuki creates an image of Manchuria as some sort of far-off intangible Promised Land. Similar to the classic Hollywood picture Casablanca the port town in the film not only becomes the final way station before they can reach Manchuria but also just like the Michael Curtiz picture the main thrust of the story revolves around finding someone trustworthy enough to help them gain safe passage to freedom.
Unlike Casablanca though Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) never devolves into nationalistic propaganda. In fact Suzuki’s film is very disparaging of Japan at the start of the Showa era. While Curtiz divided his characters into two camps, those working for or against the Nazis, Suzuki eschewed such simplistic generalizations. Instead of defining his characters through their political affiliations Suzuki illustrates that ultimately both the good guys and the bad guys in the film are not just culpable for their own fate but the entire country’s as well.
The con artist Yamano Senkichi (Hosei Komatsu) is the embodiment of the ultra-nationalist. Sporting a white three-piece suit and never at a loss for words his respectable attire belies his criminal nature. He survives by hustling those desperate to get to Manchuria out of their hard earned money by offering them false hope. It’s no coincidence that Suzuki has Yamano Senkichi constantly espousing nationalist rhetoric like “Asian Liberation” to rationalize the subjugaton of the neighboring countries that surround Japan. Although the war in the Pacific was several years away Suzuki illustrates through the actions of Yamano Senkichi that people don’t suddenly just have a desire to go to war, it is a predilection cultivated by well-dressed con men that know exactly what to say to mobilize the masses.
Also, within the film’s narrative the yakuza themselves no longer take on the role of honorable outlaws. The rival yakuza in the film become something akin to a secret police force or, in the case of the Kanbe family, independent corporate contractors. Concepts like giri and ninjo are useless in this new yakuza order. The peddlers and gamblers of the old order have now been replaced with murderers and spies; which in hindsight were the main tools that the fascists would use to stay in power. The only conventional yakuza in the film are a one-armed old man who works at the Yamashita work camp and Tetsu. Although Tetsu does fall into the conventions of previously romanticized yakuza protagonists Suzuki infuses the narrative with a nihilist streak. Tetsu seems to have a certain degree of self-awareness in the story. It is almost as if he knew his fate even before the first reel of the film had started playing. His time at the Yamashita work camp, romance with Midori, and dreams of living in Manchuria were nothing more than just side trips before his eventual fate.
To understand this ever-present nihilism in the ninkyo-eiga and jitsuroku-eiga one must look towards an old yakuza saying: “The path of a true man leads to red clothes or white clothes.” The white signifying the color of the robes one wears after death, and the red correlating to the prison jumpsuits that all yakuza will eventually don at least once in their life; with this type of thinking it’s no wonder that a yakuza’s fate is never a happy one. Like any true cine-fetishist though Suzuki is never content with being confined to circumscribed genre conventions. Those familiar with the films of Seijun Suzuki will recognize the stylistic debt that Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) owes to Suzuki’s early color experiments in pictures as diverse as Yaju No Seishun (Youth of the Beast), Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer), and Nikutai No Mon (Gate of Flesh).
All of Suzuki’s color films in the 1960’s are dependent on three key factors: bold monochromatic colors, artificial lighting, and a theatrical mise-en-scene. Suzuki color-codes various props in Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) like the omnipresent red boots that the titular villain in the picture wears or Tetsu’s metallic grey pistol for two reasons. The first is to create shots that catch the viewer’s eye. And the second reason being that it offers audiences a visual shortcut to the narrative. Thus as we watch the movie we know that the bad guy wears red boots, Yamano is the one wearing a white suit, and Kenji is easily recognizable with his black cloak draped over his shoulders.
In regards to lighting design Suzuki and his cinematographer, Kurataro Takamura, use contrast to not only delineate what time of day it is but also to establish atmosphere. The sun dappled exteriors of the Yamashita work camp contrasts with the dark cavern like space of the Ikari bar as a way to lend these locations a unique personality. Suzuki’s obsession for capturing specific visual moods overrides the conventions of Western storytelling, which place a greater importance on narrative cohesion. For Suzuki, the cine-fetishist, mood and atmosphere will always trump the filmmaker’s obligation to tell a story.
And as far as scene compositions are concerned one of the purest examples of Seijun Suzuki’s dynamic mise-en-scene can be found in Tetsu’s final showdown with the Kanbe family. Instead of relying on the aesthetics of documentary realism Suzuki opts to shoot the scene in an expressionist style. He narrows the color palette to only a handful of primary pigments: the black background, Tetsu’s white kimono, and the monochromatic fusuma that divides Kanbe headquarters into a series of corridors and secret passages. Also by reducing the area of dramatic action to a spare collection of props and scenery Suzuki turns Kanbe headquarters into an abstract space. The camera’s constant movement as it tracks Tetsu as he fights wave after wave of opponents allows the viewer to be an active spectator as they watch the kinetic action on the screen. In short, Suzuki turns the ritual of the duel into a scene straight out of the Theater of the Absurd.
A key factor to appreciating the cinema of Seijun Suzuki is an understanding that in his films people, places, and objects are not confined to the cinematic frame. Time and space are bent to his artistic specifications. As a product of the Japanese studio system Suzuki would never veer too far from commercial film genres, but within the confines of genre Seijun Suzuki found a canvas that afforded him the resources to be able to share with audiences his unique perspective of the world.