Doc Films showcases the lesser-known work of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki | Bleader

Doc Films showcases the lesser-known work of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki

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Suzuki's Everything Goes Wrong (1960) plays at Doc Films on February 6.
  • Suzuki's Everything Goes Wrong (1960) plays at Doc Films on February 6.

On Tuesday at 7 PM Doc Films kicks off a nine-week, 13-film series devoted to Japanese director Seijun Suzuki (who passed away last year at 93) with Tokyo Drifter (1966). It's the only film in the series with any sort of reputation in the west—the other 12 rarely screen outside of Japan. As programmer Will Carroll explains in his notes for the series, the Suzuki films that have been distributed in the west represent only a fraction of his work, which consists of more than 60 theatrical and television films. The titles that are widely available here tend to be action movies—along with Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill (1967) and Pistol Opera (2001) are the most popular—yet, as this series shows, Suzuki also made melodramas, coming-of-age stories, and social satires.

What unites this disparate body of work is Suzuki's restless formal experimentation. According to Tom Vick's 2015 critical study Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, the director approached every project, regardless of genre, as an opportunity to mess with editing, color, visual composition, or some other formal property of the cinematic medium. His films (at least those I've seen) are dizzying, even disorienting, constantly making the viewer switch his or her focus between the story and the nature of filmmaking itself. In their self-awareness, playfulness, and abundance of detail, Suzuki's movies sometimes resemble Jean-Luc Godard's. Unlike Godard, however, Suzuki never claimed to be an intellectual—he considered himself an entertainer, describing his experimentation as a means of keeping viewers from getting bored.

The Doc Films series, which considers Suzuki's work across several popular genres, ought to provide evidence of his showmanship. The majority of the films come from his most prolific period (the 1956 to 1967), when Suzuki was a contract director for the major studio Nikkatsu. Obliged to direct at least two to three movies a year, Suzuki was assigned to whatever genres were popular at the time. As a result, he made his share of pulpy youth pictures; in fact his first feature film, Harbour Toast: Victory in My Hands (playing in the Doc series on January 16 at 7 PM), belongs to this genre. Doc Films will show some of Suzuki's other contributions to the growing youth market (as in the United States, Japan witnessed an explosion of popular culture aimed at adolescents in the 1950s and '60s), which boast such lurid titles as Young Breasts (playing on January 30 at 7 PM), Everything Goes Wrong and Fighting Delinquents (playing on February 6 at 7 PM and 8:45 PM respectively).

Carroll's program notes liken the 1960 feature Everything Goes Wrong—about a juvenile delinquent who plans to frame his mother's boyfriend in a crime—to Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, which was released around the same time. Cruel Story was to Japanese cinema as Godard's Breathless was to French cinema, announcing a new and self-reflexive style of filmmaking that boldly mixed aspects of high and low culture. If Suzuki drew on high culture in making Everything Goes Wrong, he likely wouldn't have admitted it, but it's worth noting how he and Oshima arrived at similar ends through very different means (intuitive on Suzuki's part, reasoned and cerebral on Oshima's). In fact critics often lumped in Suzuki with the Japanese New Wave, even though he never considered himself part of that movement.

A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977) screens on February 27.
  • A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977) screens on February 27.

By the mid-60s, Suzuki became something of a cause among Japanese critics and programmers, who regarded him as a major artist in spite of his reputation as a contract-bound genre director. The series at Doc will show two movies from this period, the 1964 crime drama The Flowers and the Angry Waves (screening February 20 at 7 PM) and the 1965 Yakuza comedy Born Under Crossed Stars (screening February 27 at 7 PM). Emboldened by his growing reputation, Suzuki continued to push the boundaries of film form, much to the chagrin of his employers at Nikkatsu. Studio bosses chastised Suzuki for his supposedly confusing and off-putting films; after he made Branded to Kill, they ended his contract immediately. Suzuki's dismissal inspired protests across Japan, though he didn't get his job back. He continued to find work, mostly in television, and would direct roughly another dozen films over the next four decades.

Doc will present two movies from this late period, the 1977 melodrama A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (playing February 27 at 9:15 PM) and the 1984 satire Capone Cries in His Sleep (playing March 6 at 7 PM). The second of these films has a plot as wild as any of Suzuki's stylistic touches; to quote Carroll's program notes:

A rakugo performer dreams of performing in front of Al Capone, whom he thinks is the US president. He embarks on an odyssey to San Francisco and Chicago, filmed in an abandoned amusement park in Japan. He encounters gangsters, cowboys, jazz musicians, minstrel singers, the KKK, and Interment Camps for Japanese Americans.

I haven't seen Capone, but I can vouch for the compelling oddity that's Sorrow and Sadness, a weirdly sincere film involving golf, blackmail, and bad sex. Despite the absence of violence, Sorrow and Sadness is a characteristic movie for Suzuki in its delightful, dynamic nonsense. It shows that, when working with melodramatic material, the director could deliver a savage antiromance on par with Luis Buñuel.


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