His most popular films in the West are the ones that flouted convention and broke all the rules of narrative form he could think of. He made genre films that grew progressively eccentric until his studio was moved to fire him. The books written about him bear titles like Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun and Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki. It’s not for nothing that the Criterion Channel retrospective celebrating his centenary is subtitled “The Chaos of Cool.”
Born May 24, 1923, Seijun Suzuki followed the path of most young men of his generation by serving in Japan’s armed forces during World War II. After his discharge, he abandoned his pre-war plans and applied to be an assistant director at long-established studio Shochiku, where he worked steadily until making the move to upstart Nikkatsu, which promised a faster advancement to full-fledged directing. This came in 1956, when he turned out three films for the studio. Over the next decade, he averaged three to four films a year, taking the scripts he was assigned and attempting to put some kind of creative stamp on them.
This is evident in 1957’s Eight Hours of Terror, the earliest feature in Criterion’s series. While its story is told without much embellishment – a necessity given the 77-minute running time – Suzuki finds several opportunities for visual flourishes. The majority of the film takes place on a crowded bus, which 15 passengers and their driver are using to bypass a landslide that has suspended rail service. The passengers form a cross-section of Japanese society – a businessman and his wife, a young mother and her baby, an aspiring actress, university students, a farmer, a lingerie salesman, a prostitute – and all have their reasons for needing to get to Tokyo in a timely fashion. The same goes for the police detective escorting a convicted murderer, whose presence unnerves the others almost as much as the news of two bank robbers at large in the area. The moment they’re brought up, it’s a given they’ll eventually highjack the bus, but before that happens Suzuki employs spooky lighting when night falls to heighten the passengers’ apprehension, and contrives ways to pack as many of them into the frame as possible.
Even as it touches on the expected clichés – the murderer and prostitute turn out to be the most principled and resourceful of the lot; after the robbers and their 20 million yen enter the picture, everyone has ideas about what they’d do with the loot – Eight Hours is forthright about things that wouldn’t pass muster in a contemporaneous American crime film. Once it’s revealed how the prostitute earns her living, the subject isn’t pussyfooted around, and Suzuki includes multiple shots of one of the gangsters holding a gun to the baby’s head to keep the others in line. Pretty daring for a film made purely to support one of Nikkatsu’s “A” films.
Six years later, Suzuki was at a turning point. When asked about his early films in a 1997 interview, published in the book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, he said, “They’re nothing special. […] What you might call program pictures. I feel really the first film that I could call a signature film would be Youth of the Beast.” That came along in 1963 and starred Jo Shishido, headlining his second Suzuki film in a row after the colorfully titled Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! With Youth of the Beast, Suzuki took the basic situation he was given – a disgraced ex-cop infiltrating a yakuza gang to find out who murdered his former partner – and applied an extreme shooting style to prevent it from feeling like just another retread. The result is one of his most exuberant genre exercises, and a foretaste of the brazen experimentation that marked his last few years at Nikkatsu, culminating in 1967’s Branded to Kill.
As long as Suzuki brought his assignments in under budget – and packed them with all the sex and violence called for in the scripts – the higher-ups at Nikkatsu turned a blind eye to his occasional formal experiments. His 1965 yakuza film Tattooed Life, however, came under scrutiny for an unmotivated shot looking up through a glass floor, and the budget for 1966’s stylish Tokyo Drifter, the last of his films for Nikkatsu to be in color, was slashed significantly. Accordingly, when Suzuki came to direct Branded to Kill (which he also co-wrote), he pushed its genre elements into the realm of pure abstraction. Featuring such outré touches as Shishido’s trigger man Hanada (“ranked No. 3 among killers”) being turned on by the smell of boiling rice, a mystery woman with a death wish whose walls are adorned with pinned butterflies, and a rival hit man who moves in with Hanada to taunt him in person, Branded to Kill was a shot across Nikkatsu’s bow the company couldn’t ignore. (Hanada’s repeated question “Who’s No. 1?” also brings to mind Number Six’s similar query in the British spy series The Prisoner, made the same year.)
While Branded to Kill is often cited as the film that got Suzuki fired, Nikkatsu didn’t actually let him go until months after its release. In fact, he received the news while in production on a television show for the company. When asked to comment on the situation, Nikkatsu’s president claimed he came to the decision because Suzuki “makes incomprehensible films” and “does not follow the company’s orders.” In response, Suzuki sued for wrongful termination, but the case took three years to be decided in his favor. In the meantime, he was shut out of all the major studios until 1977, when his former home Shochiku gave him a shot at directing his first feature in a decade. That set the stage for what became known as the Taisho Trilogy – Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za, and Yumeji – made between 1980 and 1991 and all financed independently. Not a bad turnaround for a director who wasn’t sure he’d be allowed to make a film again.
“Seijun Suzuki: The Chaos of Cool” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.