Seijun Suzuki: Give it the Gas Copyright 1997 New Times, Inc.
                                                            New Times Los Angeles

                                                           March 13, 1997, Thursday

SECTION: Movies

LENGTH: 937 words

BYLINE: By Andy Klein

Give It the Gas;
Nuart series highlights the legacy that was Seijun Suzuki's thrill ride

How does one comprehend--all at once, seemingly coming out of nowhere--the collected
works of Seijun Suzuki? The Japanese filmmaker, born in 1923, made about 40 films as a
contract director for Nikkatsu studios between 1956 and 1967, none of which appear to
have been shown in the United States outside of Japanese-language theaters. But in the
five years since Tony Rayns programmed a Suzuki retrospective at the Vancouver Film
Festival, appreciation for the director's inventive, often playful features has slowly been
growing. Los Angeles, catching on pretty late in the cycle, finally gets its first real look at
him this week at the Nuart, which will show 12 of his films, together with personal
appearances.

While comparisons are by definition inexact, Sam Fuller is the first name that seems to
leap to most film buffs' minds to convey an inkling of what Suzuki is about. Like Fuller,
Suzuki, during his most prolific period, worked primarily in commercial genres, on
B-movie budgets. Like Fuller, his style seems to have become increasingly daring with
the years, pushing further and further from naturalism into a kind of expressionistic
surrealism. As one tries to understand why his films failed to make it across the Pacific
30 years ago, it seems likely that their often lurid, melodramatic style, together with their
pop genre content, struck American distributors--assuming any actually saw the stuff--as
drive-in trash, the Japanese equivalent of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

If there's one thing that film studies have taught us in the past couple of decades, it's that
drive-in trash can be wonderful--or at least it can contain much that's worth our time.
Although Dr. Goldfoot might be stretching the point, there's no doubt that Suzuki shares
some tendencies and concerns with Roger Corman and other AIP filmmakers.

At some point after his first 20 or 25 films, Suzuki apparently grew bored with the bad
scripts and stylistic restrictions his bosses saddled him with. In his 1963 Youth of the
Beast (Sunday at 1:30,5:30, and 9:30 p.m.), he started goosing up the stories with
moments of extreme stylization. (The current retrospective is showing only one earlier
film, the 40-minute 1959 short Love Letter.)

The subsequent year's Gate of Flesh (Saturday at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.) moves to new
heights of weirdness. At first, this story of prostitutes and black-marketeers in post-World
War II Tokyo looks to be heartfelt social realism, but quickly the style veers off into
garishly lit, subjective point-of-view shots. At the same time, the story gets closer to sheer
provocation, with heavily eroticized flogging scenes. (Gate of Flesh also includes the
single most disgusting throwaway gag I've ever seen, something akin to the climax of
Pink Flamingoes.)

Fighting Elegy (Tuesday at 5:15 and 9:45 p.m.) is like a flashier version of the 1963 The
Bastard (Monday at 7 and 9:45 p.m.), with bizarre flourishes heating up Suzuki's
dissection of Japanese machismo in the years leading up to World War II.

Tokyo Drifter (Friday and Thursday at 5:30 and 9:30 p.m.) was one of the films that got
Suzuki flak from his producers. The story is standard yakuza fare, but the film is filled
with flashy devices that owe more to Richard Lester and James Bond than to other
Japanese directors of the era, including frequent repetitions of the title song. Its
combination of theme (gangster loyalty) and pop-art style (with swingin' '60s set design,
staging, and editing) is like a hybrid of Modesty Blaise and Henry Silva's sole star
vehicle, Johnny Cool.

Suzuki has made only four films since Nikkatsu fired him 30 years ago, and they're
apparently artier independent productions; two of them, Zigeunerweisen and Heat-Haze
Theater, are showing at the Nuart. But the crucial Suzuki film, the one that got him fired,
is 1967's Branded to Kill, which shares a double bill with Tokyo Drifter on Friday and the
following Thursday. Branded to Kill is both the best and the worst place to start with
Suzuki: On the one hand, it's the distillation of his most extreme and characteristic
elements; on the other, it's so far out there it's hard to comprehend without some
pre-existing sense of his style. It was the first Suzuki film I saw, and I practically gave up
on it halfway through, convinced the director was simply inept.

It's only when you've seen something of the progression Suzuki underwent in the '60s that
it becomes clear that no, the cutting isn't simply incompetent, and yes, the story is
deliberately hard to follow. Made partly as a nose-thumbing gesture at his Nikkatsu
bosses, Branded to Kill is the story of Hanada Goro (Jo Shishido, a Suzuki regular, who
looks like a better-looking version of Anthony Wong), the number three contract killer in
Japan. Hanada finds himself fulfilling unlikely contracts for unclear reasons; when he
falls for one intended victim (Otani Naoko), he becomes the target of the mysterious
Number One.

There's barely any way to describe just how wacked this film is: Applying standard
aesthetic analysis to it will get you nowhere. It simply frustrates, exaggerates, and mocks
every convention of narrative and style that Suzuki's bosses wanted. It's as though, in one
final act of defiance, the director threw Alphaville, Mickey One, Point Blank, Patrick
McGoohan's Prisoner series, and the entire body of yakuza movies into a giant Osterizer
and cranked it up to puree.