Restless director who innovated

Seijun Suzuki in a 2005 photo. The Japanese director was known for his mix of violence and absurdist comedy in his films.
Seijun Suzuki in a 2005 photo. The Japanese director was known for his mix of violence and absurdist comedy in his films.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film-maker who enlivened his low-budget genre movies with pop-art flair and avant-garde theatrics, inspiring American directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, died on Feb 13 in Tokyo. He was 93.

The Nikkatsu Corp, a Japanese entertainment company for which Suzuki worked as a director, announced his death on Wednesday, saying he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Suzuki was an important member of the Japanese New Wave, the generation of iconoclasts who defined themselves in opposition to older masters such as Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi and whose films challenged the conventions of both Japanese aesthetics and Japanese society.

But unlike the central figures of that movement, among them Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, who often had the luxury of creative freedom and had their films shown at international festivals, Suzuki spent his professional prime on the genre-movie assembly line and was largely unknown outside Japan.

He directed nearly 50 films over five decades, but 40 of them came in the first 12 years of his career, when he was under contract at the Japanese studio Nikkatsu.

That period, characterised by his growing impatience with genre formulas and his increasing taste for surrealist humour and formal experimentation, ended with his gangster movie Branded To Kill in 1967.

Although now highly regarded, it led to his dismissal from Nikkatsu, which deemed his films "incomprehensible".

He said it was boredom with routine assignments that compelled him to innovate. His restlessness was impossible to miss in his late Nikkatsu movies, which are so narratively fractured, they verge on abstraction.

Tokyo Drifter (1966), a gangster film with a musical number shot from under a dance floor and a theme song that its hero repeatedly hums, was Suzuki's impudent answer to a command by Nikkatsu to rein in his eccentricities. The studio responded by cutting his budgets, forcing him to shoot in black and white.

But even with a limited palette, Suzuki was able to concoct Branded To Kill, a portrait of a paranoid assassin in which the convoluted story is secondary to the perverse fever-dream imagery and irreverent humour.

International audiences began to discover Suzuki in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to screenings at film festivals and the arrival of his movies on home video.

In the United States, he made a particular impression on younger directors who were similarly interested in testing the limits of genre movies.

Tarantino paid homage to Suzuki in the vibrant Tokyo-set sequences of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003); Jarmusch included several references to Branded To Kill in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999).

Born Seitaro Suzuki in Tokyo on May 24, 1923, Suzuki studied at a trade school before being recruited into the Japanese army during World War II. While serving in the South Pacific, he was shipwrecked twice. He later said the signature combination of violence and absurdist comedy in his films was partly informed by his wartime experiences.

"War is very funny," he once said. "When you're in the middle of it, you can't help laughing."

Many critics have identified Youth Of The Beast, a 1963 gangster film tricked out with garish visual flourishes, as the moment in Suzuki's career when his baroque style began to overwhelm the generic substance of his movies.

On his next film, The Bastard (1963), he teamed up with art director Takeo Kimura, who became a regular collaborator. After that, his films grew more boldly expressive in their use of design and colour.

Western critics have likened Suzuki's psychedelic style to contemporaneous movements such as free jazz, but he credited the influence of a more traditional and decidedly Japanese form: kabuki theatre.

The proportions of Cinema Scope, the widescreen format that Suzuki often used, resemble the long rectangle of the kabuki stage and the brazen theatricality of his films - the intense colours, artificial lighting and heightened acting - are suggestive of kabuki techniques.

A strain of serious political critique comes through in some of Suzuki's films, especially those dealing with Japanese militarism.

Story Of A Prostitute (1965) is a melodrama about a headstrong woman who becomes a "comfort girl" in Manchuria during the Sino- Japanese war. Fighting Elegy (1966), set in the mid-1930s and centred on a sexually frustrated man, draws connections among Japan's cultural norms, educational system and imperialist ambitions.

Nikkatsu dismissed Suzuki in April 1968.

The studio's president, Mr Kyusaku Hori, also withdrew prints of Suzuki's movies from circulation, claiming that they would harm the company's image if seen widely.

Suzuki's termination, which coincided with a wave of student unrest, made him a counterculture hero. He took Nikkatsu to court for breach of contract and the lawsuit was settled in his favour in 1971. But the first half of his career was over.

Without a studio base, unable to find directing work for much of the 1970s, he wrote essays and books and acted in other people's films.

It was not until 1980 that he managed a successful comeback, with Zigeunerweisen, a supernatural love story set in 1920s Japan. It became a critical and commercial success and won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film.

He went on to make two more period dramas, Kagero-za (1981) and Yumeji (1991), which, with Zigeunerweisen, became known as the Taisho trilogy.

He continued to work into his 80s. In 2001, he directed Pistol Opera, a sequel of sorts to Branded To Kill, this time with a female assassin as the central character. His final film, Princess Raccoon (2005), starring Zhang Ziyi, is a crazy-quilt musical fantasia .

There was no immediate information on his survivors.

Suzuki lived to see the revival and expansion of his reputation, but his feelings were fixed. "Either my films were too early or your generation came too late," he told an interviewer in 2002. "Either way, the success is coming too late."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline 'Restless director who innovated'. Print Edition | Subscribe