Arrow Video: Seijun Suzuki - The Early Years Vol 2. (1957-1961) - Reviewed

Arrow Video has been on a roll lately regarding the late Japanese surrealist master Seijun Suzuki’s oeuvre, whether it’s their recently released The Early Years Vol. 1 boxed set, the celebrated Taisho Trilogy and their new release of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!  Picking up where they left off on the prolific former Nikkatsu filmmaker years prior to his termination over the bizarre and incongruent masterwork Branded to Kill, Arrow have returned to The Early Years series with Vol. 2, presenting an assortment of the director’s earlier works yet to be released outside of Japan. 

Where the first collection of films focused on Japanese youths drifting in and out of the yakuza way of life or touching briefly on the Taisho period explored decades later in his Taisho Trilogy, this time around the focus is on Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies.  In other words, the five films contained within this particular boxed set tend towards yakuza pictures and action thrillers depicted inside a Japan in transition with more than a few English speaking American characters cropping up in almost each and every offering. 

All prove to be indelible ensemble pieces that showcase the director in the act of sharpening his subversive talents for visual flair while mixing what would soon become his trademark surreal and even goofball abstractions.  All in all, Arrow have outdone themselves with a follow up to their already fascinating Early Years Vol. 1 set that manages to be even stronger than its predecessor.

Eight Hours of Terror (1957)

Only the fifth feature film in the director’s career, this action oriented ensemble thriller is deceptively simple in design yet proves to be both compelling and whimsical.  After a group of passengers on a train are derailed by a typhoon which destroys the tracks ahead, the group boards a replacement bus keen on reaching their destination but soon find themselves accosted by dangerous robbers on the run.  Much like later English language thrillers such as Runaway Train or Speed, the film is largely grounded in the moving vehicle with the characters trapped inside, leaving ample room for the cavalcade of quirky and dangerous characters’ back histories to be fleshed out and story arcs to play through to their logical ends.

Something of an outlier in Suzuki’s career, Eight Hours of Terror is among the more overtly western features from the filmmaker.  Drawing heavily from Hitchcock’s own The Lady Vanishes which largely takes place within the confines of a moving train, the film largely draws its energies from the group dynamics of the passengers stuck in an unfortunate predicament.  The standouts of the group involve Keiko Shima as a prostitute who forms a bond with a convicted murder on the bus played by Nobou Kaneko, with both characters evoking sympathy from the viewer in spite of their pasts.  In a way Keiko Shima’s character forecasts the director’s own sympathies for the struggles of a prostitute later explored in Gate of Flesh and Story of a Prostitute. There’s also a great deal of comic relief sprinkled throughout the proceedings coming from the wealthier characters who couldn’t act more put upon by the arrival of the burglars if they tried.

Being the one film in this set not shot in widescreen, Eight Hours of Terror makes terrific use of the enclosed spaces with the Academy Ratio format photographed by Suzuki regular Nagatsuka Kazue, creating a sense of claustrophobia and unease with everyone packed in a tight box looking into the end of a loaded gun.  That said, visually this is one of Suzuki’s considerably less stylized efforts, generally aiming for medium-close ups of the actors’ faces and more western influenced framing of the characters in a single shot.  Where it shines involves chase sequences within the mountain woods, echoing the thick forests seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in between wide vistas of the countryside seen from afar on high, making solid use of the natural locations.

Overall, Suzuki fans will delight in seeing just how much the director managed to do with a limited budget, a lack of a central protagonist and the ability to make viewers empathize with unsavory characters.  However, those anticipating much of the filmmaker’s increasingly funky visual anecdotes will have to wait until the next feature to see where the director began to gradually toss in more derailing asides that set him apart from the Nikkatsu pack.

The Sleeping Beast Within (1960)

After Junpei Ueki (Shunsuke Ashida) returns home to his family following a long business trip on behalf of a trading company, his daughter Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) can’t help but worry when he mysteriously vanishes without a trace shortly thereafter.  Joining forces with boyfriend and newspaper reporter Shotaro Kasai (Hiroyuki Nagato), the two embark on a search for her missing father only to have him reappear as abruptly as he disappeared.  Junpei seems fine, but an unconvinced Shotaro presses on with his investigation and in the process discovers a hidden underworld of crime with far more dastardly implications regarding Keiko’s father than the couple initially thought.

Having switched to widescreen NikkatsuScope photographed by Mine Shigeyoshi this time around, Suzuki’s mysterious and unnerving crime investigation thriller marks a recurring theme running through his work regarding the coexistence of the everyman and the yakuza.  The film’s main character, a well-to-do business and family man, may or may not have ties to the criminal organization, a still very real problem for Japanese society.  Moreover, even this early in his career we can see the director’s focus on a Japan in transition, either concerned with western influences depicted in his Taisho Trilogy or with the presence of foreign English speaking characters infiltrating the screen.  In more than one sequence, Suzuki depicts Japanese characters mingling with English speaking characters whether it be within a bar setting or on the expensive cruise ship where we first meet Junpei. 

Ultimately The Sleeping Beast Within is a film about fa├žade and denial, with people hiding behind the image they project for the world to see and those personally connected to them refusing to accept the situation for what it is.  It’s a timeless story with ongoing relevance to Japanese society, yet Suzuki’s fresh and at times eccentric spin on the material sets it apart from the usual crime investigation thriller.  Suzuki, having moved away from Academy Ratio for the time being, exploits the widescreen format beautifully and displays a keen visual sense for camera placement and staging of the actors in a shot.  Occasionally Suzuki evokes a first-person point of view such as when Shotaro enters a bar as he looks on at the patrons, with drunkards walking directly into the camera.  It also, within the same year, provided a springboard for actor Hiroyuki Nagato to offer two sides of the same character, one with noble intentions and the other who will stop at nothing to get a good story.

Smashing the O-Line (1960)

While The Sleeping Beast Within prominently featured actor Hiroyuki Nagato as a heroic journalist intent on uncovering his girlfriend’s father’s potential ties to the Yakuza, Nagato would make in the following months a complete 180 degree reversal with Suzuki’s next feature Smashing the O-Line.  In the role of competing journalist Katori, this time around Nagato plays a thoroughly devious and unethical newsman who will freely engage in any means necessary to beat his friend Nishina (Yuji Kodaka) to breaking the story about a human-trafficking ring first.  Both men share a love/hate relationship in that their race to the headlines often get in the way of their friendship, until one day Katori begins to involve his own family in his illicit methodology.  Soon the film transforms into an excoriating examination of the ethics of news media while introducing elements of film noir and the femme fatale.

At first the film plays like a flipside of The Sleeping Beast Within, covering similar territory with an entirely different regard and approach.  It also takes longer for the premise to reveal itself whereas the previous film sets up the plot almost immediately with the film’s central protagonist vanishing from sight early on.  Of Suzuki’s films, Katori might be among the most nihilistic antiheroes to prominently feature in one of his works.  In more than one scene, Katori is seen bedding prostitutes before selling them up the river to the police, all the while maintaining a smug distance from the characters being duped.  Having seen Nagato play such a noble figure in The Sleeping Beast Within, it’s somewhat jarring to see him give us the polar-opposite character here.  It comes as no surprise that Yuji Kodaka, the film’s hero, would himself play the complete opposite character later on in Suzuki’s The Man with a Shotgun.

Of Suzuki’s works, Smashing the O-Line is also among the more violent and startling early 1960s Japanese films, particularly involving a thread where a female yakuza boss kidnap’s Katori’s sister and threatens to have her thugs gang rape her.  While the violence isn’t depicted onscreen, for 1960 it comes very close and marks one of the darker moments to appear in any of Suzuki’s pictures.  While in later years yakuza violence towards women would become more explicit in the works of Kinji Fukusaku and Takashi Miike, this was fairly early on in the Japanese film industry to have such a concept dramatized on the silver screen.  Suzuki’s films may have grown increasingly surreal but they were rarely ever this dark and foreboding. 

That said, the film also like the eventual The Man with a Shotgun which also dealt with the concept of rape in discussion rather than dramatization, tends to suffer from there being too many plot threads running simultaneously, diverting the narrative thrust somewhat.  Also as our characters start to proceed further down the rabbit hole, some of the plot developments’ dramatic impact gets lost in the shuffle whereas The Sleeping Beast Within maintained a solid trajectory towards unraveling it’s central mysteries.  Overall Smashing the O-Line is a fine effort from the eventual grandmaster of Japanese surrealism in film with two leading performances that give the actors a striking role reversal and it’s considerably darker than some of Suzuki’s own uncompromising later efforts.  It, however, tends to stumble somewhat in the third act despite having a memorable dramatic payoff. 

Tokyo Knights (1961)

While the previous two pictures in this boxed set presented it’s cast members playing entirely different variations of the same character, Tokyo Knights with Koji Wada as a college student who takes on the family business of organized crime more or less tasks Wada with playing the virtually identical character he also played in the same year in Suzuki’s The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass.  As with that film, Wada’s hero is an infallible Mary Sue, a larger than life force of nature: fiercely intelligent, skilled in the art of fighting, steps ahead of his enemies and a shining example for everyone else to follow.  On the one hand, it can be very entertaining seeing Wada effortlessly charge ahead through his adversaries while on the other hand, seeing him play this exact same personality in another Suzuki film within the same year can’t help but come off as predictable.

That said, Tokyo Knights, the first color film in the set, remains an engaging watch for Suzuki inserting moments of high camp and melodrama that would inevitably forecast the lunacy unleashed in Tokyo Drifter.  Take for instance a guided tour Wada embarks on, with the heads of amazed and wowed onlookers cartoonishly popping up from windows from below.  We also get a goofy schoolground fight scene between rival Yakuza gang Tokutake and the student body with the American music teacher joining in on shirtless karate.  While touching on Noh theater later glimpsed in Suzuki’s Kagero-Za with elements of the carnivalesque also seen in The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass also featuring bloodthirsty yakuza trying to interrupt a live stage play, Tokyo Knights can’t help but suffer from a sense of deja-vu as the story and characters too closely resemble the film which came out alongside it.

Loosely based on a story by Japanese politician Hara Kenzaburo, Tokyo Knights is among the more fun and entertaining Suzuki efforts, providing a breath of fresh air after the swan dive into depravity seen in Smashing the O-Line.  There’s also a decent amount of dramatic impact involving Wada’s father’s death and his relentless search to unmask his killer, deftly balancing between Suzuki’s goofball slapstick and hard-hitting crime drama.  It’s also just plain fun to look at with some wonderfully stylistic flourishes including a nightclub scene backlit by shaking red curtains which will no doubt remind modern viewers of the Roadhouse in Twin PeaksTokyo Knights is also, up to this point, the closest the auteur has come to delivering a musical with numerous scenes exploiting Wada’s own jazz pianist background and the aforementioned nightclub songs. 

Although one could gripe about this being a retread of what came before with Wada, again, playing the exact same character he did in The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass, Tokyo Knights is a frequently entertaining and colorful romp echoing the director’s youth movies in the previous Early Years boxed set.  What’s more, after getting so knee-deep in the muck with Smashing the O-Line, it’s again refreshing for Suzuki to give viewers something a bit lighter this time around.

The Man with a Shotgun (1961)

The spaghetti western, i.e. an Italian cinematic take on the American western, is common knowledge among cinephiles with many influencing if not outright creating some of the most beloved westerns in American film.  Few, however, are aware of the Japanese take on the American western.  I myself was all but completely unaware of the subgenre’s existence.  Anyway, the title itself The Man with a Shotgun as well as the plot could be easily confused with the typical American or spaghetti western and yet Suzuki sets the story deep in the Japanese rural mountain countryside amid very traditional stock characters of drunkards, prostitutes and of course the Yakuza.  Think of it as a standard western with just enough Japanese characteristics to set itself apart from the pack. 

Deceptively simple in approach yet an oddly compelling revenge action thriller, The Man with a Shotgun follows the mercurial lone hero Ryoji (Nitani Hideaki) echoing the debonair distant cool of, say, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name trilogy or even Giuliano Gemma from A Pistol for Ringo.  On a quest for bloodthirsty revenge for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Ryoji ends up in a small village comprised of drunken reprobates and a gutless sheriff with his tail tucked firmly between his legs.  Unable to fulfill his duties after being wounded amid a shootout, the sheriff’s duties fall upon Ryoji as he tangles with fierce competitor Masa (Yuji Kodaka giving the polar opposite take on his clean-cut reporter from Smashing the O-Line).  Upon accepting the job, Ryoji inadvertently finds himself in a war against local mill foreman Nishioka (Akio Tanaka) who with his posse of brutal hooligans harbor far more illicit and deadly secrets than meets the eye.

By now, Suzuki has established himself as one of Nikkatsu’s top tier genre directors with a keen command over his actors and an unparalleled visual sense.  Second to Tokyo Knights, The Man with a Shotgun is Suzuki’s most crowd pleasing effort, subverting genre tropes to fit the distinctive Japanese rural region as well as giving his performers a chance to play drastically different characters than the one before.  For instance, Yuji Kodaka more or less gives viewers an entirely different character than the one they saw in Smashing the O-Line, playing a sweaty violent drunkard this time around.  Also like Smashing the O-Line, the film hints at the notion of sexual assault and violence against women from boorish Japanese men, a heavy topic which is appropriately handled with care and reserve in this revenge drama.  And much like the aforementioned Tokyo Knights, Suzuki zeroes in on inanimate objects such as cufflinks or necklaces as vital clues leading our hero to confront his long sought-after adversaries. 

Colorful, compelling and even whimsical at times including a musical aside where the newly sworn in sheriff buys the locals drinks and entertains with an accordion, The Man with a Shotgun winds up being one of the more enjoyable entertainments offered in this Early Years volume.  It’s also curious to see Suzuki’s gradual rebellion against the Nikkatsu system unfolding as he manages to produce a solid genre picture but still manages to sneak in subversive asides that would become trademark in his later post-Nikkatsu works.  Moreover, fans of westerns are inclined to give The Man with a Shotgun a look for it’s uniquely East Asian take on the traditional American western, giving fans a familiar story yet placing it in a setting populated with characters we’ve never seen presented this way.

- Andrew Kotwicki