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February 8, 1998 Sunday ALL EDITIONS
SECTION: ENTERTAINMENT; Pg. 047
LENGTH: 399 words
BYLINE: By Paul Sherman
Suzuki offers the good, the bad and the gangsters
Like the volatile crime stories of America's Sam Fuller
("Pickup on South Street,"
"Shock Corridor") and Italy's Sergio Leone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "Once
Upon a Time in America"), Japanese director Seijun Suzuki's movies occur in a
hallucinogenic world and at an operatic pitch.
Almost unknown to U.S. audiences until a 1995 retrospective (that stopped
Museum of Fine Arts), Suzuki lands in U.S. video stores with two of his many gangster
movies, 1966's "Tokyo Drifter" and 1967's "Branded to Kill" (Home Vision). They're
among the movies Suzuki cranked out as a director for Nikkatsu Studio, three a year in
his 1960s heyday - B-movies with screaming titles and wide-screen A-movie production
values. Most were gangster movies, but several World War II pictures boldly condemned
Like cowboy or samurai movies, the two existential shoot-'em-ups now
out in letterboxed
tapes feature stories of Mob henchmen navigating deadly codes of honor, all set against
the vibrant,eye-popping backdrops of Suzuki's regular production designer, Kimura
While "Branded to Kill" is more lurid and perhaps more feverish (it's
sometimes hard to
follow), "Tokyo Drifter" is a more vivid blend of story and style.
With its gunmen decked out like Jerry Lewis' Buddy Love, a nightclub
that looks like
something by Salvador Dali and the melancholic tale of Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a
mobster's right-hand man who keeps trying to leave the underworld (usually while
crooning the theme song), "Drifter" compares well to the more famous French new wave
story, "La Samourai."
"Branded to Kill" offers another caught-in-the-middle gangster, this
time a hit man (Jo
Shishido) pursued by other hit men hoping to rise in the pecking order and by women
who at turns try to seduce him and shoot him, including his wife. It's a heady stew for
those familiar with Suzuki's lyrical excesses but perhaps too heady for the uninitiated.