Arrow Video: Seijun Suzuki - The Early Years Vol. 1 (1958-1965) - Reviewed

Last year the film world lost one of it’s greatest iconoclastic countercultural surrealists: Japanese film director Seijun Suzuki.  Having left behind an enduring legacy of films to be studied and revered for years to come, including but not limited to Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, Gate of Flesh, Story of a Prostitute and Zigunerweisen from his celebrated Taisho Trilogy, the maverick Japanese auteur left an unmistakable imprint that not only forever altered the face of Japanese cinema but arguably that of world cinema entire. 

In the wake of his death, the UK based home video company Arrow Video have taken it upon themselves to not only bring his beloved Taisho Trilogy to western viewers as never seen or heard before, but now they appear to be digging up his rarely seen early-Nikkatsu back catalog prior to his termination over Branded to Kill.  In what appears to be a continuing film series, the first boxed set entitled Seijun Suzuki – The Early Years Vol. 1, Arrow Video have licensed a total of five films spanning from 1958 through to 1965, charting the director’s early rise to fame as a director-for-hire before exhibiting his surreal, nonlinear and absurdist characteristics that would make him a midnight movie sensation in his homeland. 

While not every film is necessarily comparable to what would come later, it’s a curious and often fascinating glimpse into one of cinema’s greatest artists in the act of finding his voice before finally showing his face.  On the cusp of Arrow Video’s announcement of a second volume of Seijun Suzuki – The Early Years, let us take a look at the five films that would gradually pave the way for the director’s eventual cinematic rebellion against the film company that made him famous.  In these films which share a kindred theme concerning the ongoing war between citizens and the stronghold of the Yakuza, adolescent coming-of-age tales about delinquent youths and even an early peek at what would or would not become the Taisho Trilogy, we’re given an early look at a director-for-hire’s gradual ascension into that of a wholly original creative visionary.

The Boy Who Came Back (1958)

Among the first of the so-called Nikkatsu Diamond Guys productions, The Boy Who Came Back is a Yakuza driven crime drama which zeroes in on a tumultuous relationship involving young former reform school hoodlum brother Nobou (frequent Suzuki collaborator Akira Kobayashi) and his BBS agent Keiko (Sachiko Hidari) trying to get the delinquent’s life back on track.  Part teen melodrama and moralist fable, part indictment of the Yakuza which would become the focus of Suzuki’s later Nikkatsu work, The Boy Who Came Back is a frequently compelling drama which introduces one of the earliest iterations of postwar Japan and the heavy overarching western influences felt in their culture.  It’s not an accident that many of the film’s key plot points take place in a westernized Jazz club. 

Though straightforward and lacking the idiosyncratic weirdness Suzuki became known for, the young-director’s early effort (one of four delivered for Nikkatsu in the same year) demonstrated his innate visual talent, penchant for drama and keen ability as a compelling storyteller and director of actors.  Kobayashi does a decent job as the troubled youth who keeps jumping ship at every opportunity to make something of himself, though the film’s real focus is Hidari as the determined BBS agent who will take full blown slaps and screams to the face from Nobou yet will not give up when everyone else already has.  It's a difficult role to be in, taking such abuse yet refusing to abandon the troubled youth out of belief there's still a chance for redemption even as the situation grows more hopeless.

Watching this early Suzuki effort is both an eye-opener displaying Suzuki’s visual talent yet at the same time viewers accustomed to his often abstract narratives will become frustrated with the earnest straightforwardness of the piece.  We’ve come to expect this kind of heartfelt sermonizing from Kurosawa given his entire career before, during and after his suicide attempt which colored the rest of his work for years to come, but not from Suzuki.  In a way, you can pick up on why the maverick B movie director got tired of churning these movies out and started to destroy the narrative flow from the ground up near the end of his Nikkatsu tenure.  As such, however, it’s a decent early effort that would forecast the kindred themes shared by the next two pictures in this film series.


The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (1961)

The one and only color effort in this Arrow Video film series and the only one offering a glimpse into Suzuki’s penchant for the carnivalesque seen years later in Kagero-Za, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is an often amusing and even charmingly funny family drama involving an intelligent traveling university student named Shintaro Funaki (Koji Wada) who hitches a ride with a down-on-their-luck traveling magic show troupe and soon begins to offer help in any capacity he can.  Along the way, the troupe encounters everyone from rival acts, street carnival peddlers and inevitably the Yakuza, with the ensemble cast of characters’ pasts catching up with them in unexpected ways.  An oddly heartwarming, occasionally poignant and colorful tale of the interplay between performance art spectacle, familial bonds and perseverance in the face of adversity, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass offers both old fashioned whimsy and forecasts what would or would not become the director’s trademark hyperkinetic visual style. 

Take for instance a stage production involving a musical revue, serving up song and dance in addition to the troupe’s trademark magic acts.  As with The Boy Who Came Back, Suzuki exploits his penchant for western Jazz and the sight of several performers on a psychedelic stage set with the bassist tossing about his instrument with gleeful abandon, one can’t help but sense something oddball about the scenery.  Suzuki may have been a director for hire but it’s in moments like these were we start to see traces of the madcap subversive visionary he would soon evolve into.  Wind-of-Youth Group also offers up snippets of the raw sexuality later found in Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh, Branded to Kill and of course Zigunerweisen in the form of Akemi, a curvy and sultry stripper who becomes the object of a battle between the magic troupe and a crippled Yakuza eager to capitalize on her striptease talents.

If there is a complaint to make about this early gaze into Suzuki’s kaleidoscopic visual imagination, it’s the flawlessness of the central hero Funaki whose earnestness, good cheer and youthful wisdom seems a bit too perfect even for this rural fantasy serenade.  While ostensibly the catalyst to turn this broken down band of outsiders, he feels a bit more like a device than a believable character.  That said, Wind-of-Youth offers up so much fun that viewers aren’t likely to care and the inherent personal flaws of the magic troupe counterbalance Funaki’s perfection.  For this early feel-good color effort, you can tell Suzuki is having fun even as he’s doing a studio job and the best moments are when the film is at it’s goofiest and most playful.  


Teenage Yakuza (1962)

Returning to the gritty postwar city streets of Japan visited in The Boy Who Came Back, the third feature in Arrow Video’s box set Teenage Yakuza stands in sharp relief to the silly circus antics of The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass and gets back to basics in a serious minded tale of extortion, loyalty and chivalry in the face of evil.  Concerning two best friends, Jiro (Tamio Kawachi) and Yoshio, who find themselves on the violent receiving end of the K-Club yakuza gang, Yoshio emerges permanently disabled with a lifelong limp.  In turn, Yoshio receives an offer to join the very gang which left him crippled and partake in the onslaught of extortion from local businesses trying to stay afloat.  Jiro, however, isn’t having it and becomes the town hero when he stands up to the yakuza’s terrorizing of the business owners.  The central dilemma quickly becomes: can Jiro draw his best friend Yoshio out of the gang before he’s swallowed up by it?

Partially a coming-of-age tale of the bonds of friendship and just how far one will go to rescue someone who doesn’t want to be helped, much like The Boy Who Came Back it’s a tale of sin vs. redemption, love vs. hate and ignorance vs. wisdom.  Unlike the all-too-perfect Shintaro Funaki from the previous feature, Teenage Yakuza’s Jiro is conflicted, desperately trying to do right when his own notions of what are just and true become increasingly blurry.  Also a tale of juvenile delinquency and how fitting into the Yakuza as well as the high school in-crowd aren’t as dissimilar as we’re led to believe.  A key subplot involves a carefree teenage girl (played by Midori Tashiro) who frequently stirs up the complacent calm of restaurants with her own brand of song and dance when she isn’t egging on the K-Club boys and students to engage in fistfights.  Though a minor character, her role in the film speaks volumes to confused youths wanting to fit in while losing sight of their own moral compass in the process.

The shortest film in the series, running a mere seventy-one minutes with a breakneck pace that’s easy to lose track of, Teenage Yakuza is a bit of a mixed bag in that the narrative flow feels a bit rushed at times.  While it isn’t difficult to follow, there were some character threads that deserved to be fleshed out more clearly and felt undercut by the more abrupt approach to terse editing.  Visually, the film is of course splendid with Suzuki displaying an even greater command of the medium in terms of framing, camera placement and the actor’s position in relation to the camera.  There’s also a tense and believable story being told about how easy it is to jettison our personalities and loyalties in order to climb some sort of social ladder, no matter how corrupt and amoral the strive to be part of ‘something’ may be.  Overall it’s an often compelling and even moving piece that moved just a little too fast for this Suzuki fan’s liking.


The Incorrigible (1963)

Taking on the Taisho period for the first time, decades before unveiling his masterful Taisho Trilogy, the fourth feature in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki box The Incorrigible (also known as The Bastard or The Young Rebel) functions as a kind of loose autobiography by novelist Toko Kon recounting his journey from juvenile delinquent towards mature adult.  After being expelled from Kobe, junior student Togo Konno (Ken Yamanouchi) is banished by his mother to the rural countryside village of Toyooka with the school headmaster’s promise to set him on the straight and narrow path. 

Rebellious at heart, Togo quickly upsets the carefully guarded moral code policed by the senior student enforced Public Morals Unit who exercise their authority by way of physical punishment.  Upstaging their dim intellect as he sports and recites The Red Room by Strindberg while outwitting their one-up gameplay even as he’s outnumbered, Togo soon sets his sights on a beautiful young local girl, Emiko (Masako Izumi), who also happens to be the doctor’s daughter.  As the Public Morals Unit strictly forbids teenage romance, Emiko and Togo must practice their love in secret with the help of Emiko’s friend Yoshi (Midori Tashiro from Teenage Yakuza).

As a first look at the Taisho period for Suzuki, The Incorrigible is visually lush with frequent scenes of hard rain against bamboo forests and wide shots of mountain tops looming over the small rural village.  Adding to the film’s poignant worldview is the original score by frequent Suzuki collaborator Hajime Okumura, mixing somber strings with subtle piano tunes that form a passionate yet bleak soundscape.  In a way, the soundtrack forecasts the futility of the secret lovers, suggesting trying to maintain their ruse will inevitably end with time and tide.   

Not unlike Romeo and Juliet in a way, The Incorrigible becomes a coming-of-age tale of forbidden frowned-upon romance in a repressive culture torn between tradition from the Meiji Restoration and the newly assimilated western norms including but not limited to attire, literature and music.  As a narrative, The Incorrigible charts the secret lovers’ journey toward maturation as the once worldly and defiant Togo gradually begins to understand his place in life.  In a way, you can sense in Togo’s rebellion against culturally accepted norms of the time a hint of Suzuki’s own gradual rebellion against the systemic conventionality of Nikkatsu Studios, choosing instead to follow his own path rather than the one expected of him.


Born Under Crossed Stars (1965)

The second adaptation of one of novelist Toko Kon’s works set in the Taisho period and final film in Arrow Video’s Suzuki box, Born Under Crossed Stars touches on many of the same thematic interests explored in The Incorrigible while openly channeling many of the absurdist sight gags soon to present themselves in full bloom in his surreal Yakuza freakout Tokyo Drifter.  Focusing on a young milk delivery boy named Jukichi, from a dysfunctional family whose father gambles away the earnings on cock fighting (featuring real footage of the illegal spectator sport), Born Under Crossed Stars charts the youth’s ongoing entanglements with the Yakuza amid a romantic triangle involving two different women: mature and reserved Suzuko over forthright and free-spirited Taneko. 

While nowhere near as affecting as The Incorrigible, what stands out most notably in Born Under Crossed Stars is the emergence of Suzuki’s increasingly surreal comic lunacy with visual comic motifs that can’t help but perplex as they tickle the ribs.  Take for instance a sequence where the arrogant Jukichi engages the Yakuza on their own turf, leaving on the doorstep a confetti of broken glass, and yes it plays out as sheer slapstick echoing the heydays of Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges.  Later still, one pursues Jukichi into an open field where farmers take refuge in the tall grass only to pop back up like a jack-in-the-box one-by-one as the limping Yakuza walks across the panoramic frame.

And then there’s the love triangle itself with the sex starved Taneko tricking Jukichi into meeting her, dragging him into a hot tub which no doubt forecasted the awkward comical sexual tension in the first volume of manga artist Ken Akamatsu’s Love Hina.  Given Suzuki’s eventual countercultural status in Japan as a midnight movie sensation following his termination from Nikkatsu and short lived exile from filmmaking, one can’t help but think moments like this factored into influencing the popular manga series.  As with The Incorrigible, Born Under Crossed Stars counterbalances the absurdities with real tragedy, human pathos and the notion of jilted love amid adolescent romantic confusion as a building block towards manhood.  Being the final film in Arrow Video’s first iteration of Seijun Suzuki – The Early Years, Born Under Crossed Stars closes the series on an appropriately anticipatory note, suggesting this will be the last time we get a straightforward Suzuki narrative. 

One gets the sense that from here, Suzuki like his leading protagonist has reached a crossroad where he will decide whether or not he’ll continue to follow the path laid forth by the studio which hired him or if he’ll violently rebel and chart out his own direction off the beaten path.  Although as a standalone piece the film’s central protagonist didn’t grip me with quite the intensity of the previous Taisho period offering, Born Under Crossed Stars as part of the Arrow Video series in hindsight plays like an announcement by Suzuki that he’s finally found his niche and is ready to do take on the film world entire.  Though it may not be among Suzuki’s best, up to this point it is undoubtedly the most sincere personal expression made yet by a budding artist in the act of discovering who he is and what he really means to say.


- Andrew Kotwicki