Pistol Operas and Puffy Cheeks: The Films of Seijun Suzuki

The cult Japanese filmmaker known for his stylish 1960s gangster films gets a 14-film retrospective at the Northwest Film Center

I used to have a laser disc collection.

Laser discs were those LP-sized silver things that Roger Ebert thought looked like the dinner service from the space ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” They played movies. (LPs are those 12” diameter chunks of petroleum that music used to come on.)

Anyway, time passed, and I, like most other movie nuts at the time, got a DVD player. (You do still remember them, right?) Eventually, I offloaded all my laser discs, except for three that I kept for purely nostalgic purposes, no longer being in possession of a laser disc player.

One was the boxed set of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, still the last time those films were officially released in their pre-“Special Edition” cuts. One was the Criterion Collection edition of “Taxi Driver,” which has a Martin Scorsese-Paul Schrader commentary track you couldn’t get anywhere else until it showed up on a Blu-ray release in 2011. And the third was (and is) Japanese director Seijun Suzuki’s batshit-crazy, black-and-white 1967 yakuza fever dream “Branded to Kill.”

The sleeve for the Criterion Collection laserdisc of "Branded to Kill."

The sleeve for the Criterion Collection laserdisc of “Branded to Kill.”

It’s a Criterion release, but there isn’t any fancy-pants supplemental content, merely a brief filmed interview with the director. It’s a fantastically bizarre movie, and it has a cool sleeve illustration, but that’s not why I’ve continued to hold on to this piece of media I’m sure I’ll never be able to play again. “Branded to Kill,” and Suzuki’s films in general, were revelations to me when I first saw them on VHS in the mid-1990s, proof that even after several years of hardcore cinephilia, there were still hidden nuggets galore to be unearthed.

These percussive, concussive, too-cool-for-school exercises in B-movie style were what made me realize that we’ll never run out of good movies.

Further proof of that thesis comes in the form of the Northwest Film Center’s retrospective “Action, Anarchy, and Audacity,” which will showcase fourteen of Suzuki’s films between April 8 and 29. Several of the titles on tap have never been released on U.S. home video, so the series can serve as both a great introduction to Suzuki’s work and an opportunity for fans to dig deeper into his resume.

Suzuki’s reputation rests largely on the dozens of crime films he made for the Nikkatsu studio in the 1960s, and the retrospective’s opening weekend features his most notorious efforts. 1966’s “Tokyo Drifter” (Friday, 7 pm) is a candy-colored explosion about a yakuza who’s gone straight and now has to travel around Japan trying not to be assassinated by his former associates. It’s mostly an excuse to stage flamboyant action and musical sequences featuring leading man Tetsuya Watari, and for Suzuki to treat the gangster genre with a cheekiness that borders on camp.

"Branded to Kill"

“Branded to Kill”

After several years as a faithful studio hack, Suzuki started to take his assignments less seriously than his bosses would prefer, and the first real sign of this was 1963’s “Youth of the Beast” (Monday, 7 pm), which starred the actor Joe Shishido, ubiquitously referred to as “chipmunk-cheeked.” His distinctively puffy facial features were the result of cosmetic surgery Shishido underwent in 1957 in order to give him a more ruggedly handsome look.

Following “Tokyo Drifter,” Suzuki was on thin ice with Nikkatsu. That ice shattered completely once he made “Branded to Kill.” Shishido plays the third-ranked hit man in Japan in this rough-cut gem of absurdity that includes rice fetishes and dead butterflies and pushes the limits of both narrative coherence and the censorship of the day. In fact, in most of Suzuki’s gangster films you’ll reach a point where you realize you have no idea what the story is, followed immediately by the realization that you just don’t care.

"Youth of the Beast"

“Youth of the Beast”

“Branded to Kill” flopped and its director was fired for aesthetic intransigence. He did successfully sue Nikkatsu, but was effectively barred from filmmaking for years. Only in the 1980s did he emerge with a trilogy of independent, acclaimed historical dramas in an entirely different key: “Ziguernerweisen,” “Kagero-za,” and “Yumeji,” which screen on April 17, 18, and 19 respectively.

He even made a couple films this century, including a 35-years-later sequel to “Branded to Kill” called “Pistol Opera.” And while his directing career seems to have come to an end, Suzuki is still kicking at the age of 92.

Once a pariah, he became respected enough for a number of his movies to be released on American home video, but the following are, as far as I can tell, unavailable: “Smashing the O-Line” (Sunday, 5 pm); “Passport to Darkness” (Saturday, April 16, 7 pm); “The Sleeping Beast Within” (Saturday, April 16, 9:30 pm); “Call of Blood” (Saturday, April 23, 7 pm); and “Carmen from Kawachi” (Friday, April 29, 7 pm). If nothing else, they hammer home the point that this guy sure knew how to pick a title.

 

(Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective” runs April 8-29 at the Northwest Film Center. Visit the newly revamped www.nwfilm.org for a full schedule.)

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