“Just Shut Up and Watch!” – Remembering Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017)

On February 13, 2017 we lost Seijun Suzuki. The Japanese director, screenwriter, actor and producer was 93-years-old at the time of his death and a titan in my own cinematic universe but I haven’t had the opportunity to properly mourn his passing. Today (May 24th) marks what would have been his 94th birthday so I thought I would devote some time to discussing the life and work of one of Japan’s most dynamic, influential and innovative filmmakers.

Suzuki was born in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district on May 24, 1923 but after a devastating earthquake destroyed the area, his family relocated to the Sumida ward. The Sumida ward is also where Suzuki died according to Japanese newspapers who reported that he was often seen strolling along the Sumida River Park in a wheelchair during his final years. The region is home to Tokyo’s vibrant sumo culture and at certain times of the year it is renown for its beautiful cherry blossoms. I know from firsthand experience that when spring arrives the area transforms into a pale pink wonderland. It is not surprising that the director, often recognized for the creative way he incorporated color into his films, choose to spend his life in such a scenic location.

Young Suzuki was expected to follow in his father’s working-class footsteps but WWII changed that. In 1943 he was drafted by the Japanese Imperial Navy and saw action at sea. Suzuki reportedly advanced to the rank of Acting Sub-Lieutenant but by that time he had experienced his fair share of wartime horrors and had developed a deep distaste for authority. In response, the future filmmaker cultivated an ironic sense of humor and much like author Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22), he used laughter to combat the scars left by his military service. Suzuki’s dark humor would eventually manifest in his films, which typically contain elements of absurd comedy and biting wit amid their twisty plots and striking imagery.

When the war ended, Suzuki returned to Japan to focus on his education but after failing his entrance examine for the University of Tokyo his future became uncertain. Fortunately for us all a friend suggested that Suzuki take a film course at the recently established Kamukara Academy. In 1948 he passed their assistant director’s exam and immediately began working with Shochiku, Japan’s oldest film production company. At Shochiku Suzuki honed his skills while assisting a number of established directors including Minoru Shibuya, Noboru Nakamura and Tsuruo Iwama but in 1954 he got an offer from Nikkatsu that he couldn’t refuse. The well-establish Nikkatsu studio had recently relaunched after closing its doors during WWII and was eager to bring new talent on board. According to Chris Desjardins, author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, Nikkatsu offered Suzuki a much larger salary and the opportunity for advancement. Suzuki was eager to start directing his own films and transferring to Nikkatsu allowed him to pursue his dream.

For the next 12 years Suzuki labored tirelessly for Nikkatsu churning out 40 low-budget program pictures at the studio before he was canned for making “incomprehensible” movies that didn’t make the studio enough money. When Suzuki was fired in 1967 he had just finished Branded to Kill, now considered a cult classic, and his films were being honored by the Japanese Cine Club in a retrospective celebrating his career. The irony was undoubtedly bittersweet for the filmmaker who sued Nikkatsu citing a breach of contract and personal damages for publicly slandering his work.

In 1971 Suzuki finally won his case but irreversible harm to his career and reputation had been done. He was blacklisted in the Japanese film industry and didn’t work for 10-years. When he eventually started making films again his output was sparse and his reputation for making “incomprehensible” movies had stuck. It is still commonplace for ill-informed critics and journalists to repeat the studio’s disparaging remarks in jest or as fact, which does Suzuki and his remarkable output a disservice.

“They said my film was incomprehensible. It didn’t matter whether I thought it was a good film. I couldn’t disagree. I just had to take it. And once Nikkatsu sacked me, none of the other film companies would hire me.”

– Seijun Suzuki

Suzuki does make highly stylized films with disjointed narratives that can disorientate viewers but they are not incomprehensible. His work is indebted to the classic Hollywood crime thrillers and Westerns of Samuel Fuller, John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Huston, while incorporating elements of German Expressionism and kabuki theatre. Suzuki was not interested in capturing the day-to-day drudgery and joy of traditional Japanese life, which obsessed his predecessors such as Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring [1949], Tokyo Story[1952], Equinox Flower [1958]), instead, he typically rejected realism and conventional storytelling methods in favor of surreal scenarios, stagey editing and avant-garde compositions while relying on wide frames, jarring close-ups and unusual perspectives to communicate his ideas.

His world is the world of violent yakuza gangs, bitter WWII veterans, down on their luck prostitutes, unrepentant killers, conniving thieves, miserable housewives, brutal thugs and angry youths. Pop art nihilism infuses Suzuki’s films and they sizzle and swing like the discordant jazz soundtracks that accompany them. The gunplay and car chases are so lavishly orchestrated and lovingly arranged that they resemble religious tableaus. His filmography might be flashy, violent, absurd and unapologetic but it is also incredibly beautiful. Much like Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, Suzuki makes every shot count and the visual spaces he employees to tell his stories convey unlimited depths. He may not have had the resources to hire a crew in order to paint the buildings, vegetation and props that accompanied all his films but when he couldn’t employ a set designer, he constantly went out of his way to find the most visually arresting and colorful locations to shoot a scene. Moreover, his black and white films rely on an incredibly rich palette of grays to create the illusion of color.

Suzuki’s films have impact because he always cares where his camera is and controls every element of the production. From the suits and dresses his character’s wear, to the telephones they used as props, Suzuki was the master of his set but that didn’t stop him from collaborating with his cast and crew. He was known for making last-minute changes to scripts based on a cast member’s suggestion and regularly encouraged his actors to improvise their dialogue. He also refused to use storyboards and rarely rehearsed anything. This controlled “chaos” gives his work a kinetic spontaneity. Suzuki was an entertainer first and an artist second but much to his admirer’s delight, his extraordinary art utterly transformed, and occasionally obliterated, the humble entertainment he was making.

In Japan, the term “Seijun Aesthetic” is used to describe his style, which has influenced countless imitators including Jim Jarmusch, Takeshi Kitano, Wong Kar-wai, Quinten Tarantino, Wes Anderson and most recently the director of La La Land (Damien Chazelle) who told Japanese reporters, “I feel like I took a little from Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter as well as his whole kind of oeuvre of movies. His super wide frames and very pop-art colors — they feel like musicals to me, but with guns.”

Suzuki may be gone but as western critics and audiences become more familiar with his work, his reputation will undoubtedly continue to grow. I like to imagine a future where his films are as acclaimed as Ozu’s and Kurosawa’s.

Further reading:
– Still the Master – Seijun Suzuki Legendary Filmmaker by Chris Casey
– Seijun Suzuki, influential director of B-movie ‘musicals with guns,’ dead at 93 – AFP-JIJI
– A Salute to Seijun Suzuki

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Criterion/FilmStruck and published in 2017