Japanese director Seijun Suzuki – who passed away in 2017 – was a filmmaking dynamo without peer. And like, well, pretty much all Asian filmmakers in the English-speaking film world, his extraordinary output of work remains largely unsung, though Suzuki is truly adored in niche circles. Could any other director make a film as stylish, outrageous and recklessly exuberant as Princess Raccoon, the 2005 musical-and-cultural-mash-up starring Zhang Ziyi? The film may not strike the director’s ardent fans as anything more than an agreeable curiosity but, in keeping with Suzuki’s characteristic bravura, it is deeply unafraid to experiment with tone and the rapid-fire deployment of stylistic inventions.
You might be tempted to think that combining Jap-rap and Noh Theatre is the mischief of a man who just doesn’t care anymore, but look a little closer and you’ll see that same daring throughout Suzuki’s entire career, as evidenced in the creative violence of Story Of A Prostitute and Branded To Kill, which got Suzuki barred from studio work because of its seeming incomprehensibility.
An eye-popping sense of style, an exuberantly brash tone and innovative formal tricks were a staple of Suzuki’s work (ever since the early genre quickies that he made for Nikkatsu Studios), and this brash energy secured his place among the world’s great cult directors. During the Nikkatsu Studios years, Suzuki took most of the assignments handed to him, but his real interest lay in charging up formulaic scripts based on familiar yakuza plots (amongst other genres) with his own audacious formal designs.
You’ll rarely find social commentary in a Suzuki film (Fighting Elegy is one glaring exception), nor a consistent thematic thread running through all his works. But what makes his films such essential viewing (and the work of a true auteur) is Suzuki’s directorial innovation; he invests his films with such kinetic style that the stories themselves become second-priority to how they’re being told.
Suzuki’s films are all about how the exciting capabilities of the cinematic medium can be exploited to convey one man’s flamboyant vision of a world populated by men and women driven by their most primal instincts. As Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns wrote in praise of the maverick: “Suzuki comes up with throwaway visual and spatial ideas that other directors would be grateful to have as climactic flourishes…few directors have ever given their audiences such good value for their money.”
Three of his most famous Nikkatsu Studios yakuza films, Branded To Kill, Tokyo Drifter and Youth Of The Beast, pulsate with the sort of deranged energy that’s seldom seen in contemporary world cinema. That influence of these films was keenly felt in the west, with Jim Jarmusch practically remaking Branded To Kill as Ghost Dog, and Quentin Tarantino lifting numerous “Suzuki-isms” for Kill Bill. Suzuki’s position as one of cinema’s great mavericks has been maintained by the fact that a great deal of his work still looks refreshingly cutting-edge and retains the power to dazzle.
Suzuki’s career extended beyond his beloved yakuza genre, as the filmmaker took a detour to explore wartime and post-war Japan with, respectively, Story Of A Prostitute and Gate Of Flesh, which combined the director’s trademark stylistic flourishes and his penchant for dismantling bland genre formulas. These two films represent some of the most terrific explorations of contemporary Japanese history. Fighting Elegy, meanwhile, downplayed the formal flourishes of his other work, but acutely tracked fascism’s allure to the boisterous young, a compelling example of his ability to master subject matter beyond the “kiss kiss, bang bang” schemata with intelligence and rigour.
Without even mentioning the celebrated Taisho trilogy and his earlier Nikkatsu thrillers, it should be fairly obvious that Suzuki was one of Japan’s premier filmmakers, right up there with the usual suspects, though receiving far less of their attention. He may not have the “respectability” of Kurosawa or Ozu, but the erotic, violent worlds that he conjured up with impeccable style still form the most exciting, irresistible filmography the nation has ever produced.
SEIJUN SUZUKI’S BEST
YOUTH OF THE BEAST (1963) The revenge plot may be familiar, but Suzuki uses it as a springboard to indulge in all kinds of formal innovations. Take the opening: a stark black and white noir set-up that suddenly explodes into life with jazz music and vibrancy. That’s really nothing compared to what follows directly after in this seriously tough revenge flick with extra-large servings of violence and style.
GATE OF FLESH (1964) Suzuki’s hallucinatory fusion of post-war reporting, seething erotica and dazzling colour still manages to startle. Gate Of Flesh explores the lives and struggles of a gang of prostitutes as they survive in a rubble-strewn Tokyo licking its wounds after WWII.
STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (1965) An intense portrait of a comfort woman “serving” on the front lines of WWII. Features one of Suzuki’s great visual tricks: a character gets ripped to shreds like a piece of paper.
FIGHTING ELEGY (1966) Brimming with energy, and socio-political insights into Japanese society, Fighting Elegy is certainly one of the director’s best works. When a young man’s enthusiasm for the opposite sex doesn’t quite work out in the most desirable manner, he focuses his “energy” into violent combat. A cautionary warning on the macho male and fascism long before David Fincher’s Fight Club.
BRANDED TO KILL (1967) Branded To Kill is the best entry point into Suzuki’s career: you’ll find the director’s trademark dazzling style, surrealistic touches and innovative camerawork and editing lathered onto an irresistible hitman premise.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.