Flipping around the channels of late-night TV in my Tokyo apartment in 1984 I came across what seemed like a B movie from the ’60s. The studio: Nikkatsu. The star: Joe Shishido. The director: Seijun Suzuki. I was not at all prepared for what I was about to see, and I remember spending much of the following hour or so riveted to the screen with my mouth open. That night changed my life and set me on a journey to explore the darker side of a culture known predominantly for its classical beauty.
What I discovered were entire genres of popular films that had never been seen outside of Japan. Hard-Boiled Noir, Nikkatsu Action, Toei Pink, Roman Porno. Far from the highly respected award-winning films on the international film circuit, these were the popular low-budget B pictures that the public thrived on. This, then, was the world of gossip columns, fan magazines, and superstars who graced the walls of Yakitori shops, nomiya (bars), and family-run businesses. This was the life and blood of Japan, neatly hidden from foreign eyes who, it was assumed, would not understand what the attraction was in the first place.
In the postwar ’50s and ’60s, Japan had its own version of the Hollywood star and studio system. Names like Tetsuya Watari, Mie Kitahara, and Akira Kobayashi may be largely unheard of in the west, but in Japan they are as famous as Bogart, Monroe, and Brando. Countless directors flourished in the studios of Daiei, Toei, and Nikkatsu as directors for hire—auteurs in their own right. By comparison, Kurosawa’s work is considered more “Western.” Here we are looking at a whole new aesthetic, where plot and narrative devices take a back seat to mood, music, and the sensuality of visual images. Character development is often distilled into moments. There is a quality of timelessness—The Floating World translated to the scope screen.
Of all the B studio directors, the one who perhaps most deservedly has earned the title auteur is Seijun Suzuki. Of the forty-two films Suzuki made for Nikkatsu, the final fourteen films he made between 1963 and 1967 are some of the most important, original, and Japanese films of all cinema, and of all his disturbing masterpieces, none is as powerful or unique as Branded to Kill. Each time I see it I discover something new—it’s like seeing it for the first time.
Astonishing. Exhilarating. Inspiring.
Nobody utilized Cinemascope like the Japanese (its similarity in shape to the Kabuki stage is suggested as a possible reason) and the use of the scope screen reached extravagantly delirious heights in the hands of master cinematographers like Mine Shigeyoshi and Nagatsuka Kazue, and directors like Seijun Suzuki. In Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo Nagaremono), each shot is a masterpiece of Japanese design. These traditions go back centuries, but on the scope screen they hit us afresh and right where we live.
Born in 1923 during the short-lived and quirky Taisho period in Japan, Suzuki inherited a powerful appetite for Haikara (modern style) that was tempered by his experiences in World War II. As the member of a meteorological unit, he was twice shipwrecked in the Philippines and Taiwan, and bore witness to atrocities we can only imagine. His nihilistic philosophy is quite apparent in this work—“Making things is not what counts: the power that destroys them is”—as a kind of playful irreverence that echoes the French New Wave that influenced Suzuki and his contemporaries.
Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill is a cinematic masterpiece that transcends its genre. It is about as close to traditional Yakuza pictures as Godard’s Alphaville is to science fiction. Suzuki paid a price for his brilliance, however. Fired for “incomprehensibility” after making Branded to Kill, he was unable to work in film for ten years. This film is his seminal work; a genre film from a major Japanese studio by a team of creative geniuses who made no compromises. But here the genre is merely a point of departure.
John Zorn is a New York-born composer who has been living in Tokyo on and off since 1984.