Cinema lost one of its most venerated maestros of excess last week with the passing of director Seijun Suzuki, whose signature films from the 1960s exploded the conventions of the Japanese studio system. While honing his craft in dozens of films cranked out on the B-movie assembly line, Suzuki became impatient with the uninspired scripts he was tasked with bringing to life. This creative restlessness impelled him to innovate a fresh new style that fractured the formulas of genre storytelling with frenetic pacing, eye-popping compositions, and an absurdist approach to narrative. Though Suzuki continued making movies into the new millennium, it is this string of breakthrough work from his rebellious years at Nikkatsu studios that cemented his place among the titans of the Japanese New Wave and continues to mark him as a touchstone for contemporary auteurs like John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, and Quentin Tarantino.
In his memory, we’re revisiting essays from our releases of Suzuki’s films from this period, which paint a portrait of a director reaching new heights of artistry and audacity.
- In Suzuki’s 1963 breakthrough film, Youth of the Beast, the director’s “axiomatic world comes into sudden focus,” writes Howard Hampton. This striking gangster film captures “the sense of a director hitting his stride, full of devil-may-care assurance and try-anything imagination, coupled with an uneasy, palpable boredom with the stale trappings (in the most literal sense of the term) of the cops’n’yakuza form.”
- For the following year’s Gate of Flesh, a film about prostitutes and black marketers in postwar Tokyo, Suzuki concocted his own combustible brand of social critique. With a vision “as brutalizing as a Goya canvas,” writes Chuck Stephens, the director “shattered the narrative into shards of competing inner voices and staggering superimpositions and used them to stage a
fearsome guerrilla night raid on an axis of oppression that includes the state,
the church, the U.S. military occupation, and both the commercial exploitation
and the nonprofit pleasures of carnal love.”
- With Story of a Prostitute (1965), Suzuki undertook another adaptation of Taijiro Tamura, who wrote the novel on which Gate of Flesh was based. David Chute argues that the film, which tells the story of a comfort woman in 1930s Manchuria, finds Suzuki ascending to the status of “a great artist . . . This is the movie that proves Suzuki should be lifted out of the limiting category of the Asia Extreme cult directors, the ‘Japanese Outlaw Masters,’ and placed at the grown-ups’ table, alongside Kurosawa, Okamoto, and Kobayashi.”
- Suzuki returned to the yakuza subject with Tokyo Drifter (1966), a film that converted “an ostensibly routine potboiler” into “a jaw-dropping, eye-popping fantasia,” writes Manohla Dargis. In another essay, Howard Hampton emphasizes the movie’s sui generis quality as the work of a consciously global filmmaker: “Tokyo Drifter was an engraved invitation to the 24-7 party of the sixties, the flip side of the assassinations and napalm and anguish, indulging the pop love of surfaces and artifacts over Freudian anxieties or Marxian imperatives.”
- Suzuki “was forty-three years old when he made Fighting Elegy, his penultimate film for Nikkatsu, but it was—and remains—a wonderfully youthful movie,” writes Tony Rayns. An unusually personal film for the director—one that also happened to be “a subversively funny account of the making of a model fascist”—the black-and-white Elegy (1966) “goes where no film before had gone in search of comic insights into the adolescent male mind.”
- With Branded to Kill (1967), widely regarded as Suzuki’s masterpiece, the filmmaker moved into wild abstraction—and in the process got himself fired from Nikkatsu, for whom he’d made a total of forty-two films. In his essay, Rayns observes that the film “deconstructs the crime genre so thoroughly that [it] ends up resembling its near contemporary Made in U.S.A (1966), Jean-Luc Godard’s most fragmented movie.” In another piece on Branded to Kill, composer John Zorn also invokes Godard to stress the film’s experimental character, writing that Branded “is about as close to traditional Yakuza pictures as . . . Alphaville is to science fiction.”