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Restoring Japan’s Gangland Poet to his rightful place in history

Toyo Miyatake Studio Rafu Shimpo Collection

By 1967 the dictatorial Nikkatsu studio president Kyusaku Hori had had enough. He approached filmmaking like an auditor going over a company’s finances, there were boxes to be ticked and conventions to be adhered to. His corporation was a factory, mass producing entertainment for the cheaply exploitable youth market. The constant spanner in Hori’s assembly line was Seijun Suzuki. Over the previous twelve years, he had directed thirty-nine films and in that time had developed a canon of hysterical, hallucinatory and heretical works. With each production, the insanity became more liberated, excessive and frenzied. He was the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema and Hori was done with his shit.

As a warning shot, Suzuki’s next film would be given only a shoestring budget with the cautionary note that he was ‘going too far’ and needed to ‘play it straight’. Suzuki responded with Branded to Kill, an expressionist fantasia in which an assassin with a perverted lust for the smell of boiled rice is psychologically tortured by a superior rival who appears to be more than human and whose presence is always felt though never fully confirmed like the spectre of some unspeakable Lovecraftian horror haunting every frame. Hori fired him.

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In being sacked Suzuki was martyred. Students, intellectuals, actors and fellow directors held public rallies and demonstrations in his defence. He became a countercultural icon whose films symbolised a political and intergenerational conflict of ideas. He was blacklisted for ten years, becoming the patron saint of non-conformity, an artist struck down in his prime. Icarus might have flown too close to the sun but Suzuki flew into it at supersonic speeds. And yet, all he got out of it was a decade of unemployment. To borrow a couplet from Mark Lamarr, he “the James Dean of the dole queue, a rebel without a job.”

His 1977 comeback produced flashes of genius as he moved into the cinematic mainstream with reasonable success but he’d been tamed. It all seemed somehow sedate as if the moment had gone.

And yet despite domestic fame and fandom, he has largely been confined to little more than a note in the margin of the West’s collective memory of Japanese cinema. Certainly his reputation grew in the mid-eighties with retrospectives and home video releases. He can now boast a cult following, seven entries in the Criterion collection and can count Tarantino, Chan-wook Park, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano and Jim Jarmusch as admirers. But the English speaker world has largely denied him the respect and recognition he deserves.

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The reason why he is still denied such well earned plaudits is bigger than Suzuki or his work. It is largely due to the widespread advancement of a narrative of the Japan’s film history that is inherently elitist, extraordinarily simplified and shaped by Orientalism. His work has been forgotten or dismissively ignored by the self proclaimed ‘cinephiles’, that uppity band of pretentious bourgie snobs who congregate at Bikram yoga sessions, ‘world music’ gigs and wherever quinoa is sold. They divvy Japan’s culture into stereotyped manageable chunks and although you’ll never be able to shut them up about the Ozu, Kurosawa or Studio Ghibli, their interest in the country’s film is largely due to The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. Their fetishized conception of Japan as a whole is a process of appropriating and gentrifying its cultural commodoties, but only when they fit their pre-conceived clichés. They are the liberal wannabe intelligentsia whose racism is subtle but no less ignorant.

They refuse to acknowledge the Kaiju genre as full of vital cultural artefacts of the post-Hiroshima atomic age and prefer instead to treat it with all the artistic respect you would give to Robot Wars, and are similarly ignorant of anything centred around the Yakuza. They romanticise Samurai as the bastions of honour, service and dignity, an image somewhat at odds with their historical role as the armed wing of the aristocracy in a feudal military dictatorship. Such hoity-toity wannabe intellectualism tells only a fraction of the story, as would caricaturing Western film as being simply a straight line from Griffith to Coppola to Nolan without the detours via Corman or Cronenberg. Such a distinction between art and trash serves only to confirm the industry establishment’s impenetrable egos and leaves out the dissenters, revolutionaries and rebels from the story of cinema. It leaves no space for filmmakers like Suzuki, who spent his career hysterically ridiculing tradition and highbrow conceptions of morality.

In 1943 as the tide of the Pacific War began to turn, the Imperial Japanese Army held a national recruitment drive amongst students and the then twenty-year-old Suzuki signed up. But before he so much as reached the front an American submarine sunk the troopship he was aboard, an ordeal he survived only to quickly be shipwrecked again, this time from an Air Force bombing raid. The ghastly absurdity of war was not lost on the young soldier, who was not so much as traumatised (at least not outwardly so) but amused, later explaining:

…war is very funny, you know!…You can’t help laughing… I was thrown into the sea during a bombing raid. As I was drifting, I got the giggles. When we were bombed, there were some people on the deck of the ship. That was a funny sight.”

He tread water for eight hours before finally being rescued. When he eventually made it to the tiny, remote Taiwanese airport he and twelve others were stationed at, his experiences were quite different from the glorious eradication of the ‘forces of evil’ that Japan’s declaration of war had promised. Suzuki reflected decades later that,

To avoid the outbreak of a revolt because of sexual deprivation… the army staff had considered it strategically necessary to supply us with three army prostitutes. This isn’t a very edifying story, but I can’t help it: I spent most of my money on booze and women.”

Suzuki’s nihilism and absurd style is closely link to his experiences of the war and of returning to Japan. His home city of Tokyo had been burnt to the ground and his many ordeals ingrained in him a fascination with ruination, staying with him throughout his film career: “I think what remains in our memory is not construction but destruction”, he told Cinema ’69. His generation’s means of cultural destruction was permanently scarred by the experience of the War. Whereas Marxism had significantly influenced the pre-war directors’ odes to social justice (see Imai or Yamamoto), legendary Japanese film theorist Tadao Sato explains that the “war time generation had only militarism, and literary youths such as Suzuki came to hate its senseless, coarse nature.” Faced with the austere conservatism of post-war Japan, not merely in government but also in corporate and popular culture, “their thinking inevitably became more abstract.”

Suzuki’s work needs to be situated both within the international experience of the sixties and his own country’s student movement. His films reflect that he was living in a time of significant change and ought to be contextualised amongst the very best cinematic manifestations of the decade’s counterculture. The support he received amongst students after having been fired by Nikkatsu is testament to his ability to take B-movie trash and make it twist and shout not just until something original shines through, but something relevant to the zeitgeist.

When contractually tied to the studio he had to take whatever scripts were given to him out of fear of losing his job should he refuse. The screenplays he received never strayed far outside the confines of genre, giving Suzuki both a basic scaffolding of support and endless material for mockery. The result was more often than not a concoction of his war-forged nihilism, the countercultural elements that surrounded him and the literary tradition of Gesaku, an irreverent and cynical brand of satire that had been popular across the anti-establishment spectrum since the 19th century.

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His time with state-provided prostitutes informed his most challenging and brutal work, Gate of Flesh. It’s a graphically disturbing portrayal of a clique of sex workers trying to stay alive in post-war Tokyo. They are surrounded by the unfathomable destitution of the post-war’s city and are just as likely to show solidarity to one another as they are to lash out in violence. Far from just another of Nikkatsu’s pink films it’s Suzuki’s critique of the new Japan he came home to. As American soldiers make use of the women’s services the director draws on his own experiences to propose that despite the change in uniforms, the exploitation and abuse never stopped.

Combining all these influences with his love of destruction and past experiences of literally laughing in the face of death, Suzuki set his sights on the supposed ‘noble’ side of popular gangster mythologies. Many of his yakuza films, perhaps most significantly Tokyo Drifter, tore the aggrandized image of organised crime to shreds. He wasn’t interested in the oath bound, honourable gentlemen criminals but more a portrayal of them as self-serving and backstabbing thugs, often exploited by whiny, petulant and pathetic mob bosses who relied on heavies to save their arses from every spot of bother. His protagonists were the classic antiheroes of noir with a satirical edge, a knowing wink to the gap between the assortment of romanticised clichés Nikkatsu wanted him to build his films around and the reality of the underworld.

But simply acknowledging and toying with the limits of his studio’s imagination does not make him a great director. Certainly his disrespect for the sacred genre conventions of yakuza films is admirable but what makes him brilliant is that his mischievous derision extended to his mise-en-scène, with costumes, setting and cinematography often at odds with each other, their tone and significance being sarcastically radical and visually bombastic. His fondness for stylistic excess might not lend itself to the level of abstract symbolism of say, Buñuel, but Suzuki was always capable of portraying ideas semiotically when needed to. The framing of the American flag in Gate of Flesh, for instance, draws a line between the militarism of the thirties and war time governments and the post-war occupation.

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It was 1963’s Youth of the Beast in which Suzuki first staked his claim as a deranged genius. His previous films had included experiments in colour that could be contradictory to his pro-filmic scenic elements but here his hues burst out off the palette and into a gonzo epic of deceit and lies with each eye-popping frame building a rock’n’roll beatnik artwork of calligraphic aesthetics as beautiful as any of Ozu’s. However, his images weren’t striking due to a process of painstaking choreography but rather because of their fractured expressionism, with every saturated blue, red and purple exploding like roman candles across the screen. This was rebellious, insurrectionist even when considering the ‘common sense’ of his Hollywood contemporaries was, as Mary Beth Haralovich argued, that “colour should contribute to unobtrusive realism.” While Suzuki was far from the first to place such an emphasis on his film’s hues (indeed Japanese cinema has long emphasised a more extreme palette than its Western counterpart), he did so with a sense of quasi-Dadaist idiosyncratic irrationality. And all this was frankly tame in comparison to his later films.

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But such lunacy has no place in the Western perception of Japanese culture as primarily conservative and obsessed with honour. This narrative refuses to recognise that the country’s political and social landscapes are capable of being just as radical, contradictory and untamed as any other’s. The constant elevation of Kurosawa and Ozu onto pedestals of greatness unattainable by B-movie directors is inherently condescending. The very notion of ‘high art’ is exclusionary and is unable to do justice to the wild mavericks and their rock’n’roll gangster masterpieces. Any account of Japanese cinema wanting to avoid such snobbery needs Seijun Suzuki in his rightful place amongst the very best, raving lyrically as the pop poet of yakuza trash.


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