Arrow Video: The Taisho Trilogy (1980-1991)

Following the iconoclastic Japanese rogue surrealist’s termination from Nikkatsu after Branded to Kill in 1967, the late Seijun Suzuki after becoming embroiled in a heated lawsuit which resulted in his films being briefly withdrawn from circulation and he was blacklisted from the film industry for nearly ten years.  It was arguably one of the most heated public battles between filmmaker and studio in cinema history, eclipsing the fallout generated by Terry Gilliam’s battle with Universal Studios over his film Brazil. 

During his hiatus from mainstream film production as the trial and blacklist ensued, Suzuki kept himself busy publishing books of essays as well as numerous television films, miniseries and commercials.  While the industry all but forced Suzuki out of film production, the public feud made the director a countercultural icon and soon after his films became midnight movie sensations playing to packed houses.  It was around this period in which Suzuki became acquainted with producer Genjiro Arato and began work in 1980 on what would soon become known as The Taisho Trilogy

Set during the era of Emperor Taisho’s reign from 1912 to 1926, the loosely connected series of films shared kindred themes focusing on the democratization and Westernization of Japan including but not limited to art, attire, literature and interior d├ęcor.  Tinged with surrealism and a touch of the supernatural, the Taisho Trilogy marks a grand departure from the anarchic and manic Nikkatsu pictures he became infamous for and as of current represents the director’s most celebrated works in his native country.  Released on blu-ray by Arrow Video in an ornate collectible boxed set, the Movie Sleuth takes a close look at the late Japanese auteur’s eclectic film trilogy chronicling a short lived moment in time when Western ideas and norms became more and more infused within the fabric of Japanese society.

Zigeunerweisen (1980)

In a bloody crime scene amid a small seaside village beach, two former Japanese professors and long lost friends strike an unusual if not contentious reunion.  After Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), a former aristocratic intellectual turned feral nomad in traditional clothing, is suspected of the murder of a fisherman’s wife and surrounded by an angry mob with police, Aoichi (Toshiya Fujita) a well-dressed professor of German in Western clothing, vouches for his friend and the crowd disperses.  Soon the two estranged men catch up over dinner before falling for the same geisha, Koine (Naoko Otani) and indulge in affairs with one another’s wives and increasingly random sexual encounters. 

Based upon the novel Disk of Sarasate by Hyakken Uchida, Suzuki expanded the scope of the novel with the help of writer Yozo Tanaka.  Opening on a scratchy 78rpm gramophone record of Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (translated to Gypsy Airs), the record becomes the anchor and focal point of the story as in the time honored tradition of the film’s writer-director, the film rapidly breaks down the walls separating reality from fantasy, linearity and narrative coherence from abstraction and incomprehensibility.  Soon characters die in one scene and are alive again in the next, dopplegangers of both characters disappear and reappear, set pieces rapidly change in the blink of an eye as the film advances and the traditional cinematic concept of a beginning, middle and end is tossed out the window in favor of a kind of atonal dream state where the real and imagined are inseparable. 

Unlike the Nikkatsu genre pictures he began subverting with manic energy and a wild imagination across the panoramic widescreen, Zigeunerweisen shot handsomely by Kazue Nagatsuka in contrast brings the frame down to a stately 1.33:1 academy ratio with much of the action framed at the center of the screen with a decidedly more nuanced and methodical pace.  While eliminating the panorama he became known for prior to his exile, the imagery on display is no less complicated than anything the director has ever attempted with so much picture information taking place within the square frame it would take a lifetime’s worth of repeat viewings to internalize all it has to offer.  The soundtrack is also far more minimalist this time around, aided by a haunting score by Kaname Kawachi, sounding very like the score adorning Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan

Part historical period drama chronicling a peculiar moment in Japanese history when Western cultural norms became more and more enmeshed with Japanese society, part elusive erotic ghost story/avant garde art installation, Zigeunerweisen is above all a hypnotic viewing experience of a director’s idiosyncratic style free of the constraints of bigwigs who tried in vain to reel in the director’s feverish imagination from orbit.  Rather than take viewers through the Taisho period with traditional formalism seen in directors like Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa, Suzuki’s approach instead drops you in the middle of a fragmented dreamscape where the pieces never quite fit together but enough are bobbing around for the viewer to begin making sense of the mystery.  Instead of creating a standard period drama, Suzuki filters the period through memories and dreams that are closer to how those who lived through the time would recall them rather than documenting them verbatim. 

The first in a trilogy comprising the countercultural Japanese auteur’s return to the director’s chair, Zigeunerweisen was initially refused theatrical exhibition by Japanese distributors.  Rather than accept the defeat of his film being shelved, director Seijun Suzuki and producer Genjiro Arato decided instead to tour the film across Japan in a giant inflatable dome tent dubbed Cinema Plaset screening.  The tactic worked and the once exiled auteur who was told he made films that ‘made no sense and no money’ played to great commercial success despite only being toured in limited screenings.  The film went on to garner nine Japanese Academy Award nominations and won the Best Picture and Best Director Awards.  While the tamest of the increasingly bizarre and radical Taisho Trilogy, Zigeunerweisen to this day is cherished by cinephiles the world over as an enduring classic of Japanese cinema and cemented the once disgraced and exiled Seijun Suzuki as a master of the visual medium who broke the mold for how Japanese movies are made and shown.


Kagero-Za (1981)

After the warm welcome back to Japanese filmmaking with his underground smash hit Zigeunerweisen, Seijun Suzuki reteamed with producer Genjiro Arato and quickly followed that film up with Kagero-Za, the least accessible and most radical entry in the trilogy.  Set in 1926, Tokyo while sharing some of the same cast members and set pieces in Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-Za (translated to Heat Haze Theater) posits playwright Matsuzaki (Yusaku Matsuda) amid a series of random encounters with a peculiar woman named Shinako (Michiyo Ookusu) who may or may not be the late wife of the gunslinger aristocrat Tamawaki (Katsuo Nakamura) or, further still, might just be a geisha who resembles Shinako when her hair doesn’t turn bright blonde or her eyes don’t turn bright blue at the turn of a dime. 

Working again with Yozo Tanaka based upon the novel by Kyoka Izuma, Kagero-Za is something of an even more anarchic reworking of Zigeunerweisen with the series of dopplegangers, ghosts, eroticism and abrupt changes in tone, narrative, time and space.  Kagero-Za also in contrast turns up the absurdity level to even greater heights, including but not limited to altering the tone of an actor’s voice to a chipmunk, freely shifting between slow motion and jump cuts.  In a move precluding Suzuki’s eventual Pistol Opera, a send-up of Noh and Kabuki theater in a larger than life children’s play whose set breaks down revealing a bladder cherried gateway to…another dimension?  The waking state?  Death or rebirth?  Suzuki doesn’t tell. 

Far more abstract and incongruent than Zigeunerweisen and maybe even the wildest offering in Suzuki’s oeuvre, Kagero-Za reunites the director with the same cinematographer and composer of his previous film and the results this time around are startlingly even more unhinged than the film before it.  If the aim of Zigeunerweisen was to utilize dream logic to express the inner turmoil felt among the characters as they watch their once traditional Japan slowly grow more Westernized, Kagero-Za plays somewhat like a Dadaist extremist reworking of the first Taisho Trilogy entry.  Considerably more provocative with increasingly violent and frequently sexual imagery including a sequence involving a set of dolls with explicitly detailed genitalia hidden inside, Kagero-Za no doubt would pave the way for filmmakers such as Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike for the use of sexualized props and set pieces. 

Kagero-Za is arguably the least accessible entry in the Taisho Trilogy and as such is a comparatively more difficult watch.  Much of the imagery playing out over the final scenes with paintings of naked Japanese women being mutilated comes across as anarchic, bold and violent, giving Kagero-Za a leg up on Zigeunerweisen in terms of edginess but ultimately is the weaker entry in hindsight.  Whereas Zigeunerweisen placed the viewer within the state of mind of a set of characters caught in a transitional period of Japanese history, Kagero-Za is far more interested in subverting narrative structure and coherence until the standard beginning, middle and end of a movie becomes inapplicable.  A bolder experiment and visually more daring exercise, yes, but so far the weakest link in the great director’s, at times, transcendental trilogy.


Yumeji (1991)

After finishing the second entry in his loosely defined Taisho Trilogy, director Seijun Suzuki would only go on to direct two more features in 1985 and wouldn’t return to finishing the trilogy until 1991 with the eccentric and frequently bizarre biopic, Yumeji.  Chronicling the life (somewhat anyway) of poet and painter Takehisa Yumeji, the film functions as a loose biography of the artist’s life and his constant pursuit of creative expression.  Akin to Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah in their kindred efforts to giving view to the painter’s own interior struggle to make the best possible artistic creations he can while freely using dream logic and surrealism to show what he is thinking, Yumeji winds up being the most accessible of the trilogy while never letting go of the director’s uncompromising approach to editing, framing, composition and narrative structure.

While loosely a nonfiction piece, this is clearly through and through a Seijun Suzuki film in all of it’s frustratingly confounding and visually arresting glory.  Coincidentally the titular Yumeji is played by Japanese rock star Kenji Sawada (also in Mishima and Suzuki’s Pistol Opera) who at the time proved to be a divisive and controversial casting choice but in hindsight fits the bill perfectly as an iconoclastic figure yearning to stand out in an already decidedly zany Japan caught in the throes of tradition vs. modernity.  Differing this time around are both the cinematographer and the soundtrack composer, giving viewers a sensory experience that is unmistakably part of the Taisho Trilogy yet with a somewhat more traditional original score. 

While maintaining composer Kaname Kawachi’s services from Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-Za which tended towards the atonal and minimalist musical design, Yumeji utilizes a far more haunting and emotionally invested orchestral score by Shigeru Umebayashi who would go on to score Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046.  Curiously, the composer’s theme for Yumeji wound up being reused to more popular effect in Wai’s In the Mood for Love and anyone familiar with it and 2046 will point to the soundtrack’s overwhelming influence in our emotional connection to the proceedings onscreen.  It’s a startling departure from the far more removed and experimental scores of the first two films in the Taisho Trilogy and one that would forecast the composer’s eventual collaboration with one of China’s most celebrated auteurs.

Also swapped out this time around is cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka’s 1.33:1 Academy ratio camerawork, instead opting for 1.66:1 widescreen photography by Junichi Fujisawa, providing a slightly larger visual scope than previously offered in the first two Taisho films.  Suzuki also utilizes far more slow motion this time around than previously, including a first-person point of view shot seen from Yumeji’s perspective as he saunters through the red light district.  There’s also more frequent use of special effects techniques and elaborate set moving set pieces though Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-Za comparatively exploited greater use of blue-screen matting and superimposition effects work. 

Yumeji is at once the easiest Taisho film to digest for being somewhat grounded in nonfiction while providing a more memorable visual approach and an infinitely more accessible soundtrack.  The casting of a well known rock star in the lead role at the time may have worked against the film’s credibility among film critics and audiences but in the end left an indelible impression not felt in Kagero-Za.  Taken as a biopic while those who look hard enough will find many of the details to be an accurate portrait of the artist, Yumeji may well be too radical for it’s own good and will no doubt disappoint those strictly looking for the facts.  

As a Suzuki film, while lacking the solidarity of Zigeunerweisen, Yumeji is a worthy closing chapter to his loosely connected Taisho Trilogy which sport a lifetime’s worth of astonishing and eccentric vistas that stand on their own as moments of pure visual imagination bubbling up to the surface from deep within the surrealist madcap Suzuki’s subconscious.  All in all, a fitting end to a series of films that play less like traditional narratives with the hypnotic pull and power of a dream that surely affected every Japanese man and woman who lived through one of the strangest times in their history where their sense of self increasingly began to give way to Western ideals and motifs. 


- Andrew Kotwicki