My wife Rita and I first experienced the wild cinema
artistry of Seijun Suzuki at the Seattle International Film Festival
in 1997. We ventured into a screening of Tokyo Drifter with literally
nothing to go on but a sentence or two in the SIFF program guide.
Nothing couldve prepared us for the experience.
The neo-film noir saga of former yakuza man Phoenix
Tetsu utterly mesmerized us; we were, of course, avowed fans of
Japanese cinema from Kurosawa to Godzilla, but Tokyo Drifter was
utterly unique, an absolutely mind-blowing amalgam of noir cool,
Zen storytelling, and the most eye-popping palate of colors wed
ever seen on a cinema screen. Color us hooked from that point on.
We sought out Suzukis work, only to find out
that it was unavailable through any conventional domestic channels.
Finally we tracked down VHS copies of Tokyo Drifter and Suzukis
art-noir masterwork Branded to Kill via a small mail-order outfit
and were able to absorb these gems into every fiber of our being.
A year had passed. During a routine workday in April
1998, Rita called me frantically at 3:30pm to tell me that in just
two hours, the Seattle Art Museum would be opening a weekend-long
retrospective of the films of Seijun Suzuki
and that Suzuki
would be in attendance, in person. My boss generously let me scoot
out of work early, I picked Rita up, and we were off to the SAM
in a proverbial flash.
The crowd lined up at SAM was small but enthusiastic,
a motley crew of cineastes of various ages and stripes. As we waited
in line, Suzuki unobtrusively entered, his translator at his side.
He was conservatively dressed in a tweed jacket and dress shirt;
his long white hair, goatee, and gentle, unassuming manner lent
him an air of serene wisdom more appropriate to a priest than to
the father of some of Japans most wild-eyed and radical genre
Once we were seated in the theater, a representative
from the Seattle Art Museum gave an introduction, and Suzuki spoke
briefly (through his translator), thanking us for our attendance
and expounding briefly on the film to be screened, 1958s Voice
Without a Shadow. Simply seeing this obscure gem (never before screened
in the Northwest!) was an absolute treat.
Voice Without a Shadow weaves a masterful crime
story about a Tokyo news reporters quest to solve a cluster
of seemingly unrelated murders, a classic hard-boiled set-up that
deftly weds film-noir toughness with a fascinating glimpse of a
Japan in post-war transition. Shot in beautiful, moody black and
white, Suzuki contrasts tranquil glimpses of traditional regional
life with the seething, sweaty beast of encroaching Westernization.
The movie brims with distinctive and striking imagery.
One scene in particulara deceptively languid and gauzily beautiful
long shot of a bicycle rider that ends with a gruesome discoverywill
forever be etched in my brain. Yet Voice
still maintains the
tension and pacing of the best noirs (via some machine-gun editing,
decades ahead of its time) right up to its white-knuckled
By the time he shot it, Seijun Suzuki was already
(obviously) a bold and assured storyteller with a unique knack for
giving American film styles his own cultural and aesthetic stamp.
And seeing this formative step towards his explosive 60s
style, on a big screen, was priceless.
The maestro fielded questions from the audience
at the films conclusion. Suzuki detailed his affinity for
the movies source material (a best-selling detective novel
by Matsumoto Seicho), and revealed that he was given essentially
free rein within budgetary boundaries to adapt the occasionally
seamy story; most mainstream American filmmakers of that time shouldve
been so lucky!
The next film screened, 1963s Kanto Wanderer,
served up a less frenetic (but no less compelling) drama, this time
dealing with the day-to-day existence of Kakuta (Akira Kobayashi),
a charismatic yakuza in service to the Izu gang.
Yatsuharo Yagis storyline details a fierce
rivalry between the Izus and their sworn enemies, the Yoshida clan,
as well as a doomed infatuation that crosses both families. The
scarred and tattooed Kakutas erstwhile affair with a lady
gambler figures into the mix, as does her brothers status
as a Yoshidaan affiliation that leads to violence and chaos.
As the film progresses, Suzuki lets fly with loud
primary colors and arch stylistic touches, and things get more abstract.
Every tiny gesture, every common object takes on grand significance
(a decided kabuki influence rears its head throughout). The director
punctuates a single decisive swipe of Kakutas sword by saturating
the scenes background in sharp crimson lighting. Though statelier
in pace than most of Suzukis oeuvre, Kanto Wanderer serves
up as many rewards as any of the masters other works.
After the second feature, a small table was set
up in the lobby, and Seijun Suzuki sat, graciously greeting his
fans and conversing with them through his translator despite the
rather late hour. He seemed happy, but genuinely perplexed that
people on this side of the ocean revered his work so highly. Rita
and I pilfered the surroundings for flyers, a program, and some
of the lovely SAM posters commemorating the retrospective. Then
our turn came.
Rita took the opportunity to praise Suzuki for his
bold and innovative use of color in his 60s films. Tokyo
Drifter is my favorite movie
she sighed. Suzuki called
her Rita-san, even writing the moniker in Japanese on
the program he was autographing. The director modestly thanked her
for enjoying his cinematic coloring book, and Rita shook
his hand, a look of bliss and adulation adrift on her features.
As Suzuki interacted so graciously with my wife,
my mind raced for something to say when I had a chance to speak
to him, the perfect question, or some insightful statement that
would launch the man into a lengthy and lively conversation; after
all, how often does one get to meet a living legend face-to-face?
But my normally chatty nature was utterly undercut by my absolute
awe at just being in the mans presence.
In the end, the only thing that I could say, the
only sentiment that didnt seem trite or sappy, was to simply
thank him. I leaned toward the young Japanese woman who served as
his translator while the director signed my flyer.
Could you please tell Mr. Suzuki, Thank
you for sharing your time and talent with us? I asked.
She nodded and turned to the director, relating my comment to him
in his native tongue. Her high, soft voice sounded like a flute
playing staccato notes.
To this day, I cant be sure exactly how she
translated my simple statement of gratitude (like most slow Americans,
I know about six words of Japanese), but upon hearing her, Seijun
Suzukis eyes suddenly lit up. The look of elation on his countenance
took me by complete surprise. A broad smile crossed his weathered
face, and he grasped my hand with the force of a man one-third his
age. Arigato! he repeated several times as we shook
hands. I responded with the same word, glowing like a Vegas billboard.
Those who know the mans career know that Seijun
Suzuki spent a lot of years creating great movies that were treated
by critics in his homeland with relative indifferenceand that
his fidelity to his muse led to virtual blacklisting in the Japanese
film industry for over a decade. The directors sincere appreciation
of everyone in attendance that night was clear and resplendent;
in our own small way it felt as if we fans had helped make some
of those struggles worth it all for him.
Rita and I walked away, waving goodbye to the maestro.
He waved back, shouting Arigato! once more at us as
we made our way out. His reaction was so enthusiastic that it caught
the attention of a group of college students near the door. One
of them asked, What did you say to him?
We just said thanks, I said.