The Criterion Shelf: Directed by Seijun Suzuki

The centenary of the birth of one of Japan's most original film artists is celebrated with a retrospective of 14 of his classic films

Movie studios in 1950s’ Japan were just like everywhere else and everywhere since: there’s a product to sell, there are profits to made, and when the craftspeople get too creative with a winning formula, patience from the brass is quickly lost. So was the case with Seijun Suzuki, whose centenary was marked last month. In 1967, Suzuki handed in an unconventional action film with a convoluted narrative and kinky visuals called Branded to Kill and Nikkatsu studio president Kyusaku Hori decided he’d had enough. Suzuki was fired in April 1968, handed a month’s salary, and told that he should give up directing because his work was incomprehensible and therefore proved a lack of talent.

Suzuki had been hired by the studio after a stint in lowly positions at Shochiku, now best known to international film lovers as the studio that released most of Ozu’s oeuvre, working there from 1948 until 1954, when Nikkatsu opened its doors for the first time since World War II and took him on as an assistant director. A year later, his first credited screenplay, Duel at Sunset, was released, and a year after that his first film as credited director, Victory Is Mine. Nikkatsu prided itself on releasing a new double feature every week. Suzuki’s job was to provide the lower half of the bill, conventional genre pictures meant to come straight off a production line and adhere to audience expectations in order to keep them in their seats. Suzuki, however, was not a man born to follow rules, not even for his own good.

Born in Tokyo under the reign of Emperor Taishō, a period whose cultural and political turbulence would be a significant theme in his later filmmaking career, Suzuki was raised in a family that flourished in the textile trade. He attempted to follow that line, earning a degree in that field before failing the entrance exam at the Ministry of Agriculture. He was then recruited into the army where he served in the Second World War. “War isn’t brutal,” Suzuki says in an interview on the Criterion Channel, “it’s comically absurd.” The experience was one he felt was dehumanizing for all involved no matter what side you were on. It would inspire later film projects, such as 1965’s Story of a Prostitute, which is taken from his memories of “comfort women” supplied to soldiers to avoid an outbreak of rebellion. Suzuki survived two shipwrecks and earned the rank of Second Lieutenant. After the war, he failed the entrance exam for the University of Tokyo and enrolled instead in the film department at Kamakura Academy, which set him on his destined path.

While at Nikkatsu, roughly 1956 to 1967, Suzuki made forty films, most of them in the yakuza genre. He was famously a workaholic who didn’t brush his teeth, change his clothes, or shower during shooting in order to devote as much time to his work as possible (and how lovely for all who worked with him). It’s not until 1963 that he began displaying the curious style that would eventually make him legend, when his twenty-eighth feature, Youth of the Beast, displayed a sense of style and boldness that critics now see as his breakthrough. As Horrorstör author and New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix proclaims in his highly recommended introduction to Criterion’s Suzuki collection, Suzuki took one simple motto seriously: “Don’t bore the audience.” If his films were always on the lower half of a double bill, viewers had already sat through one movie and it was necessary to do everything possible to keep them nailed in their seats for a second. The studios commissioned all manner of exploitative elements in his films, namely violence and (female) nudity, but to these, Suzuki added bright colours, when given colour stock to shoot on, and expressive editing that sometimes defied narrative logic but provided something more ephemeral, an emotional logic that makes all his films feel like expressions of something spontaneous, immediate, and important.  Sexual frustration, political betrayals and breaks in friendship are splashed across the canvas of the screen in ways that never age despite the dated acting and photography styles. Folded within these elements are subtle criticisms of post-war Japanese society as Suzuki saw it, particularly class conflicts and exploitation of women.

It wasn’t long before the studio was trying to hamper his originality, issuing warnings of “going too far” after the release of Tattooed Life in 1965 that went unheeded. Believing they could break his spirit, Nikkatsu cut his budget on Tokyo Drifter, which only made that film more deliciously loopy. Relegated to shooting in black and white, which the studio believed would prevent any further disobedience, Suzuki made Fighting Elegy, his most powerful criticism of toxic masculinity, and Branded to Kill, which represents him at his most daring and is the film by which his style is most frequently defined; the latter, it turned out, would seal his fate.

The same month of his firing, Suzuki was meant to be the subject of an April 1968 retrospective at Cine Club, a student-run film society that would be focusing on a homegrown director for the first time. Nikkatsu wouldn’t release Suzuki’s films to be screened, prompting Cine Club to hold a three-hour debate, attended by two hundred people, to discuss pressuring the studio to change their minds before a June 1968 public demonstration (mirroring similar activity in France) successfully reversed the decision. Japanese Film Directors Association chairman Heinosuke Gosho met with Hori to discuss not removing Suzuki’s films from distribution but was unable to resolve the matter. Suzuki took the studio to court for breach of contract and wrongful dismissal. The case, which lasted two and a half years and uncovered information about the studio’s financial struggles and the role Suzuki’s films played in allaying them, had a bittersweet outcome: Suzuki was awarded a settlement and Hori was forced to issue a public apology. However, Nikkatsu was in the rubble by this point, having moved into making soft-core pornography, and Suzuki was blacklisted from making feature films for more than a decade.

A true artist who was not overly concerned with his lack of popularity, Suzuki kept going and earned his living as best he could, publishing books of essays, directing for television in any capacity (series, movies, commercials) and even appearing as an actor and becoming something of a counterculture icon. He returned to features with his “Taisho trilogy,” three films released between 1980 and 1991 that marked a high point of admiration for him in Japan despite not getting much play elsewhere. In fact, his entire oeuvre was barely known outside of Japan until retrospectives in North America started popping up in the mid-1980s, followed by Criterion Collection releases in the 1990s on laserdisc and DVD that spread his gospel to movie lovers everywhere. He made two more films in the mid-2000s, but retired thanks to declining health, still showing up for the odd interview and displaying a good-natured sense of humour about his past troubles, dying at the admirable age of 93 in 2017.

Suzuki’s rebellion against his bosses expressed itself most deliciously when he’d receive orders to create exploitative products and use the opportunity to criticize important societal issues. Awash in nudity and male gaze-y voyeurism as it may be, Gate of Flesh, which was his highest ever box-office hit, is a fascinating pre-cursor to The Beguiled that understands and explores the circumstances that have forced its main character into lives of relentless degredation. Even if Suzuki’s detractors are correct in calling him a grindhouse fetishist, he manages to find great reserves of sympathy within his highly charged plots. “I am often told,” he says in the interview here, “that a story with a dark subject always turns into a more cheerful movie in my hands.”

Criterion Channel’s retrospective of Suzuki, marking the hundredth anniversary of his birth, is a fine summation of this exciting auteur’s career, including early works that show glints of rebellion while still towing the line, then the films he’s most famous for, and it caps it off with the unwieldy but worthwhile experience of the Taisho trilogy.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, with thanks to Marko Djurdjic for his generous contributions.




The Man With A Shotgun (1961)

One of the most satisfying entries included here, this action film shows Suzuki’s potent ability to take the well known traditions of a Hollywood genre and give them muscle while adapting them to modern Japanese film conventions. Hideaki Natani is remarkably powerful as a stranger who shows up in a divided mountain town whose main industry, a pulp mill, is a cover for drugs. He jumps at the chance to take over as sheriff when the man holding the job is conveniently injured. He then begins the process of cleaning the place up, which, it turns out, is tied to a tragedy of his own past. Magnificently photographed and robustly performed, this movie touches on plenty of familiar tropes in Westerns, including the bad saloon gal with a heart of gold, but performs them in a manner that makes everything feel fresh and new.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! (1963)

Suzuki’s ability to squeeze a great deal of character and style out of a familiar genre concept, without sacrificing the lean efficiency of his plotting, is on magnificent display in this police thriller starring Jo Shishido, with whom he made eight films. Shishido is all star power as a detective who is assigned to infiltrate a yakuza gang war and discover the location of a hidden weapons cache, which he does by setting up an elaborately complicated profile to fool his new employers and get at them from the inside. Naturally, he breaks the heart of a gangster moll in the process, but not before leading us through some gorgeously shot action sequences involving mayhem on the city streets.

Youth of the Beast (1963)

Marko Djurdjic: Within the first five minutes, we are presented with a double suicide, a four-way fight, two guys getting roughed up, gambling, theft, drinking, smoking, and blood being wiped off a shoe onto the victim’s own shirt. It’s amazing. Joe Shishido is beyond badass, and Le Samouraï definitely ripped off his blue suit and grey fedora look. Shishido plays Jo, a brazen gangster who pits two rival Yakuza clans against each other for his own gain. He has a giant metal suitcase filled with “the tools of his trade,” and he can put together a rifle in five seconds. He’s cold and terrifying, but damn, does he get the job done. Cue the violence and explosions. Suzuki’s direction is fluid, aggressive, and assured; the choices are inspired, and the composition immaculate. Although this is messier, and less experimental or stylized, then some of his later films, many of Suzuki’s signature flourishes—the wild, often surreal editing, the vibrant colours, the effortless cool—have their genesis here. Filled with rhythm, repetition, and self-referentiality, the film pulses with a frenetic, uninhibited energy. It really bops, much like its excellent, jazzy soundtrack, courtesy of Hajime Okumura. Although the film lacks the unabashed perversity of some of Suzuki’s more salacious flicks, Jo’s hidden, surprisingly altruistic agenda gives it nuance and balance. Suzuki’s mastery of form and frame starts here, and it’s a shame he’s not a more celebrated filmmaker, a true maverick who easily deserves to be named alongside other uncompromising greats like Peckinpah and Fassbinder. His creativity, even within a well-worn genre, knows no bounds. It’s my favourite Suzuki film by a mile.

Story of a Prostitute (1965)

Gate Of Flesh was followed by an even more sympathetic exploration of the vulnerabilities that women suffer in a world guided by men’s fickle desires. Yumiko Nogawa is magnificent as Harumi, who is abandoned by her lover in Tianjin before volunteering to be sent to the front to as a “comfort woman” to soldiers fighting in the Sino-Japanese war. Her beauty makes her the prize of a superior adjutant who abuses her regularly, which does not break from her negative view of the world. However, she becomes fixated on his gentle junior officer Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), who she sees as a spot of light amid relentless darkness. Mikami’s lack of experience with women only endears him more to her, but Harumi must decide just how important he is when he dishonours himself by being captured by the enemy. It feels like a much fuller movie than its 96 minute running time would suggest thanks to a very grim but not bitter or hopeless tone. The film is evocatively photographed and performed with exceptional skill by its stars.

Fighting Elegy (1966)

Suzuki was often tasked with making films whose exploitative elements would sell tickets, orders which he obeyed before subverting these elements thematically. Here we have a violent drama that also provides a critical take on toxic masculinity. The film tells of a lovestruck young man who is emotionally mixed up by his sexual awakening, both in terms of pleasuring himself and the charms of his landlord’s daughter, and sublimates them both into an increased devotion to violence. First joining a fight club that gets him thrown out of school, he is sent out of the city to live with country relatives and attend a local school. He instantly starts throwing down with his fellow students and becomes a key figure in a battle between warring clubs. Where other filmmakers present fight training as a spiritual discipline and martial arts as a higher calling, Suzuki sees all violent activity as the foolish acts of small men who are reacting to their fear of their own vulnerabilities and inability to risk rejection. That he sets it in the 1930s adds a layer of what he sees as the generation who led their country into the follies of World War II. The film plays like grindhouse indulgence on the surface, but is really something quite dark, disturbing, and essential.

Zigeuner-Weisen (1980)

A very different Suzuki returned to feature filmmaking thirteen years after Branded to Kill got him fired. The shift in style and tone is remarkable. An elegiac rumination on identity and friendship, this first (and best) in a trilogy of films that are seen as his finest work in his home country is about a German professor named Aochi who goes on a seaside vacation and runs into an old friend and colleague, Nakasago, who has left behind all professional reserve and lives without care for social propriety. Barely getting him out of trouble after Nakasago is accused of murder, Aochi spends time with him and witnesses Nakasago’s romance with a geisha, then catches up with him later when he marries another woman before returning to his earlier affair. The musical piece of the title provides a key emotional element in the final act of this film, whose emotional devastation is barely louder than a whisper, but whose rumination on relationships and ambition is powerful and deep.




Eight Hours of Terror (1957)

Suzuki’s fifth feature and the earliest included here is far more conventional than the rebellious experiments with narrative that emblazoned his name in film history, but the tight and unsparing tension of this Wages of Fear precursor still shows him off as a storyteller who enjoys toying with his audience’s emotions. It takes place almost entirely on a small commuter bus whose passengers have been forced by circumstances to cross a treacherous mountain pass towards a connecting train that will get them to their destination of Tokyo. The colourful ensemble includes no less than a hooker with a heart of gold, a suicidal new mother, a convicted murderer, political activists, adulterers, a cop and, to top it all off, armed robbers on the lam who take everyone else hostage. Despite the simple set-up and limited setting, Suzuki manages to turn seventy minutes into a deeply satisfying ride with more than its fair share of visual pleasures and narrative thrills.

Everything Goes Wrong (1960)

Also known as The Madness of Youth. A group of young people and their sordid activities are introduced to us before we find the focus of the ensemble, a rebellious boy named Jiro whose widowed mother has infuriated him by announcing that she plans to marry the benefactor who has been looking after them since his father died in the war. Fuelled by Oedipal melancholy, Jiro begins an affair with a young woman with whom he immediately becomes abusive and starts orchestrating mischief to prevent his mother’s marriage, gets involved with gangsters and inadvertently aids another friend with her goal of procuring money to have an abortion. The hard partying and drug-taking are great for ticket sales and these rebels make for captivating film subjects, but the presence of Jiro’s mother and the constant mention of her husband’s death suggests that this generation of young people who have drifted so far astray aren’t cool misfits, they’ve been set adrift by a society’s inability to reckon with the trauma of the war years. Suzuki doesn’t quite tap into the nucleus of these characters’ inner lives, but it’s a flashy diversion that you won’t regret giving your time to.

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Nikkatsu hoped that limiting Suzuki’s budget would prevent his making his usual unwieldy fare but he still delivered his usual bright and beautiful rebellion, so they forced him to shoot his next two in black and white in the hopes that that would do the trick (spoiler alert: it didn’t). Suzuki is clearly making the best use of his few resources here, maximizing sets and in some cases making no attempt to hide that he is shooting on a soundstage, but the vigour of his editing techniques and bold, expressive colours make for a film that looks good enough to eat. The basic nerve of the plot is about a gunman who remains loyal to his gangster boss who has decided to go legit, then finds himself on the run from assassins on all sides including those he thought were protecting him. I’ve watched it four times and still find myself getting confused by the details but it’s no problem, neither is Tetsuya Watari’s uninspired performance in the lead. It’s a fantastic representation of Suzuki’s singularity as a filmmaker and a memorable record of his visual prowess.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Marko Djurdjic: From the outset, the blasting guns over the Nikkatsu logo set the tone: this is gonna be a blast. (Ok, that’s a bad joke, but it’s certainly a brash way to start a film.) Joe Shishido stars as Goro Hanada, Japan’s number-three hitman, who’s gunning for number one. (There I go again…) After Hanada performs a number of increasingly difficult assassinations, he is tasked with a nearly impossible kill by a mysterious woman named Misako, which inadvertently makes him the target of Number One Killer, the…um…number one killer in Japan’s underworld. Suzuki saturates the screen with quirkiness and absurdity, giving the gangster genre a much-needed comedic injection, an approach which would later be “borrowed” by countless directors whose cold-blooded killers talk about baseball, the weather, and of course, food. (Hanada has a very unique fetish that involves smelling steamed rice. Where does Suzuki come up with this stuff?!) The frantic, idiosyncratic editing—much of which resulted out of necessity due to budgetary restrictions—is oftentimes jarring; cuts are not made for continuity, but for pace, tension, and intensity, moving us not only in time and place, but emotion. Suzuki gives us POVs, surreal, free-associative imagery that borders on the avant-garde, and some of the most inspired kills in cinema, many of which have also been ripped off by other directors (Jim Jarmusch, eat yer heart out). Suzuki’s approach is beyond exaggerated, subverting gangster tropes by focusing more on feel and tone, rather than clarity. It’s downright impressionistic, employing a number of classical filmmaking techniques while actively rebelling against them (a series of striking post-kill tableaux is particularly uncinematic). Near the beginning, a sloppy ambush by some amateur gangsters is captured by a chaotic, handheld camera. After the bullets settle, one character says to Hanada, “Not exactly the behaviour of a pro,” and I can’t think of a more perfect summary for Seijun Suzuki himself: he’s rough around the edges, but he gets the job done. We should all be so anarchic.

Kagero-za (1981)

Keeping up with Suzuki’s narrative expressionism was never more challenging than in this romantically haunting film whose logic, as is often the case with the director’s oeuvre, is more emotional than expository. The film focuses on  a playwright in 1926 Tokyo who has repeated encounters with a mysterious beautiful woman. She turns out to be the wife of his patron who, he is told, has already expired and might be a ghost beckoning him to his doom. Drawn to the enigma of her and her entanglement with another beautiful spectre, he accepts an invitation to the countryside to witness what he is told is a suicide pact between lovers, but which might involve him more directly than as an observer. The final third of the film, in which the title’s rough translation of “Heat-Haze Theatre” becomes specifically relevant, involves him witnessing a performance by young people that reflects on what he has experienced. A running time of 140 minutes is a lot to ask of a film that purposely drops you into a dreamlike situation that is often hard to follow, but the elegance of the performances and the genuine heat of the main character’s frustration makes for something fascinating and sexy.




Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)

A prison transport vehicle is ambushed by gunmen who kill a passenger and set another free, which results in the supervising guard receiving a six-month suspension for letting it happen. At first, he decides to take his punishment on the chin, but in replaying the events in his mind realizes that the circumstances he remembers don’t add up and merit his investigating the truth behind who really did it and why. Warring gangsters, human trafficking, blackmail and murder all circle the drain of Tokyo’s underbelly in this evocatively photographed noir. There are too many characters to keep straight (a Suzuki specialty) and the plot loses you with its constantly doubling back on details, but what really matters is how richly the images, especially with their ominous shadows, pay tribute to the best detective fiction out there.


Gate of Flesh (1964)

Marko Djurdjic: One of Suzuki’s most overtly political films, Gate of Flesh tells the story of a group of industrious, independent sex workers in post-WWII Japan. Although the film relies on Suzuki’s favourite topic—the underworld—it avoids his traditional macho gangsters in favour of four women (played by Yumiko Nogawa, Kōji Wada, Tomiko Ishii, and Kayo Matsuo), who live in a cacophonous, bombed-out Tokyo market and make a living sleeping with anyone who has fifty Yen and isn’t an American GI. When a Japanese ex-soldier named Shin is shot by American military police, he crashes their dilapidated home in order to heal, and the tenuous truce between the sex workers comes to a head. The women have their own codes and forms of justice, internal laws that, if broken, result in pain and excommunication. They get sadistic pleasure in enacting these punishments, laughing at the fear and pain they cause, and yet the pain here feels self-inflicted, cyclical, reflecting the complacency, opportunism, and hypocrisy Suzuki witnessed in the chaos of postwar Japan. You can sense his anger, frustration, and disgust, with both Japan and the US, and he uses the women to air these grievances. Stylistically, the film is one of Suzuki’s most understated works, and there is a distinct lack of flair to the filmmaking. Thankfully, the vibrant colours are ever-present (the women’s costumes are particularly fantastic, with each woman characterized by her own distinct colour—purple, yellow, red, and green), while the jagged sets seem to sweat, breathe, and swell with heat. They’re moist and alive, more biological than architectural, everything drips and glistens, bodies and buildings alike. While the movie starts off promisingly enough, it progressively loses its political urgency until the very end, with much of the action in the third act driven by melodramatic love triangles. While Suzuki blends expressionism and hard-boiled realism seamlessly, the second half of the film is plagued by bizarre plot points, which often feel clunky and clichéd. The climax and poignant final shot redeem the film somewhat, but it’s cynicism and brutal violence may be off-putting to some viewers. This is Suzuki at his most venomous, not for the uninitiated.




Yumeji (1991)

The third entry in Suzuki’s Taisho trilogy is the hardest to process for anyone not familiar with its subject or the culture from which he sprang. Takehisa Yumeji was an early twentieth century poet and painter whose artistic life is embodied here, presented as a voluptuary constantly interacting with a series of women and finding inspiration in his relationships with them. Told in a fractured, kaleidoscopic style with bold, inventive images that make their mark, this one goes many steps further than the previous two films in being enigmatic to the point of obscure. Allow the aestheticism to wash over you and you might appreciate it for what it’s worth, but anyone hoping to assemble the puzzle pieces into something cohesive will veer between frustration and boredom.