Seijun Suzuki: Uncle Samurai Copyright 1996 VV Publishing Company
                                                               The Village Voice

                                                               January 23, 1996

SECTION: Film; Pg. 70

LENGTH: 720 words

BYLINE: Howard Feinstein
 

UNCLE SAMURAI

American Culture Through a Japanese Lens

At the Japan Society

Through March 16

After the French, the American film noir cast its ominous shadow most heavily on the
Japanese. The yakuza of their cinema is an offshoot of the Hollywood hit man, their
righteous, face-saving cop a blood relative of our cynical, streetwise detective. The
urbanscapes of cult favorite Seijun Suzuki and the young Akira Kurosawa pulsate far
from the pensive, spiritual realms of Mizoguchi and Naruse. Skewed angles and shades
suit the sweltering alleys and cramped interiors of overpopulated Tokyo and Osaka;
corruption and sadistic violence are dramatic fodder for a well-regulated social
order.

The influence of big-city noir is but one facet of Americanitis in the Japanese films
explored in this wide-ranging 10-picture series. Other symptoms include the pop art of
Masahiro Shinoda's Killers on Parade (1961), the Cronenbergian cyberpunk of Shinya
Tsukamoto's Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), and even '30s-Sternberg gangster chic in
maestro Yasurjiro Ozu's silent Dragnet Girl (1933).

Noir, however, rules. Take Kurosawa's Nipponoir masterpiece, Stray Dog (1949). Set on
the seamy side of postwar Tokyo during a blistering hot spell, Stray Dog sticks closely to
the genre's code of doubling. Handsome Kurosawa-staple Toshiro Mifune plays
Murakami, a novice policeman and bleeding-heart liberal whose Colt revolver is lifted
from his jacket on a crowded bus. Humiliated before his superiors, robbed of his piece,
Murakami conducts his own investigation in Tokyo's underworld, even shedding his
(gorgeous) all-white ensemble for homeless attire. (A nearly 15-minute silent,
impressionistic montage of Tokyo's down-and-out scene is cinematic gold.) His search
leads him through fabulous nightclubs, where Latin music plays loudly and menacingly.
In one, a center for the illicit gun trade, he hunts down the thief, who has killed three
people with Murakami's gun. Finally, cop tackles and handcuffs lowlife in a swamp. The
mud-covered, panting pair resemble postcoital lovers.

Seijun Suzuki's brilliant widescreen Youth of the Beast (1963) is noir passed through the
nouvelle vague, with borrowings from the indigenous Cult of Kitsch and the exaggerated
melodramas Universal cranked out for women here in the '50s (everything's marbleized).
Its narrative construction--flashbacks, freeze-frames, multiple actions, hallucinogenic
points of view--is as convoluted as the ping-pong, love-hate relationship protagonist Jo
(jowly Jo Shishido as an ex-cop/yakuza out to avenge the murder of a kind detective) has
with the cruel gang he joins. The group's other members, experts in face slashing and
finger disposing, are unlike regular Jo: The bespectacled boss makes out with the Persian
cat perched on his shoulder; the chief's handsome, soft-looking brother is gay. When
necessary, however, these mutant machos strike the poses of classic crooks.

Less formally shaped by Yankee proclivities but fascinating for the way the myth of the
American dream hovers over its content is Yoshishige Yoshida's Cinemascope oddity,
Escape From Japan (1964). Hypermanic nerd Tetsuo (Yasushi Suzuki) opens the film
lip-synching ''I want to get away,'' in English, to his bedroom mirror. Away for Tetsuo
means the U.S., far from his job as the gopher for a second-rate musical group. ''I tremble
at the names Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.,'' he tells his neighbor, an attractive
prostitute who later goes on the lam with him after a failed robbery attempt. Leftish new
waver Yoshida effectively demolishes two American traditions, the road movie and the
happy ending.