For Los Angeles cinephiles with time on their hands and a hankering for Nikkatsu actioners, the one-two punch of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's current screening series Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective - a touring exhibition organized by Tom Vick* with support from the Japan Foundation - and the ten (!) Seijun Suzuki films available to stream via Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime is an irresistible opportunity to delve deep into the filmography of one of the avant-garde greats who - in creating his stylistically singular and best-known work Branded to Kill - was fired from the studio that made him one of Japan's most celebrated directors.
UCLA's series has already passed the halfway mark, but one of the rarest double-bills in the line-up screens tonight, Feb. 27th, 2016, at 7:30 PM. Two of the five (!) movies that Suzuki made at Nikkatsu in 1960 are on the docket: The Sleeping Beast Within and Smashing The O-Line. Both are reportedly gritty, hard-boiled yarns about loose women, hard drugs, and detectives who don't know when to quit. Although Suzuki didn't come firmly into his own frenetic, surreal, pop art-style until the mid-1960s, hints of experimentation pepper his early works. Spotting the genius flashes of inspiration is half of the fun. And neither of these films is available on home video.
The perfect continuation of Saturday evening's festivities lies with Hulu Plus. With eight of Suzuki's most notable works available to stream via The Criterion Collection and two of the deeper, weirder cuts available on Amazon Prime, the best place to resume the immersion is with the films that often synchronously serve as his introduction to Western audiences: Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to KIll (1967). In addition to being the first of his works originally released by The Criterion Collection on DVD (spines #38 and #39, respectively), these are two of his most influential - and visually recognizable - pictures. Each film's unquestionable flair has as much to do with Suzuki as it does his close working relationship with art director and production designer Takeo Kimura, with whom he would invent and stage elaborate set pieces from otherwise threadbare, run-of-the-mill scripts. Suzuki and Kimura invented an altogether previously unseen form of cinematic imagination, as-of-yet to be truly rivaled.
Thankfully, Suzuki's experimental approach to narrative did not nearly end with his termination from Nikkatsu. A ten-year blacklist-induced hiatus from filmmaking (following years of legal turmoil with the studio) only served to further abstract Suzuki's modus operandi. Pistol Opera (2001) - a loose, gender-swapped remake of Branded to Kill - is available via Amazon Prime and best represents the modern-day Suzuki. Gesture, color, and emotion are paramount. Logic is secondary to everything else. The way that something looks is more important than what is happening. The result is a highly theatrical, deliberately artificial film that minimally adheres to the plot points of the earlier version. Not recommended as starter Suzuki. I bought a copy of this film when in high school and convinced from non-cinephile friends to watch it. I don't think they ever forgave me. But I never forgot the experience, how much it moved me, and how not every filmgoer is ready to process a picture where - as Suzuki himself says - "time and place are nonsense." I was in love with Suzuki as a filmmaker from that moment forward.
Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: The Films of Seijun Suzuki continues through March 13th. Tickets are $10 for General Admission, $8 for Seniors, UCLA alumni, and Non-UCLA Students, but free for current UCLA students.
In the meantime, fuel your newfound Seijun Suzuki fanaticism with this rare Nikkatsu film music compilation.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon
* As it turns out, Tom Vick literally wrote the book on Seijun Suzuki. You can buy it here.