The first time I heard about one of Seijun Suzuki’s films was while reading the book Disorderly Orderly, the proceedings of a workshop in Amsterdam in 1994 where film scholars and film archivists viewed and discussed colour in silent cinema. In the workshop’s screening program listed in the book among numerous films featuring the multitude of colour found in the first decades of cinema, one striking anomaly appeared. A film from 1966, Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono), was included in the program, the organizers explained, because it «seems to revive the freedom colours enjoyed in films from the teens» as «the photographic colour of the film is ‘stretched’ to the limits». I found this to be an apt description, and the link to early cinema a striking comparison, when I finally had a chance to see for myself the ostensible autonomy of colours, reminiscent of a Méliès film, played out during a screening of Tokyo Drifter several years later.
This play of association between a Suzuki film on the one hand and seemingly unconnected parts of film history on the other is quite common when film scholars or programmers try to describe what takes place on the screen. In his most well-known films the imagery, film language and narrative of the 1960s yakuza genre transgress into the realms of the musical, surrealism, Godard, or early applied-colour films, an idiosyncratic aesthetic that resembles nothing and still is reminiscent of a variety of disparate things. As is sometimes pointed out, not only in the case of Suzuki but with regard to Japanese cinema (and non-western cinema in general) such associations in western film reception also can reveal the lack of detailed knowledge of art history and popular culture in Japan, referring to the seemingly peripheral but nonetheless familiar instead of identifying how the films relate to their specific national cultural and industrial contexts. However, in his obituary for Suzuki in The Guardian, Jasper Sharp – who has been prolific in placing the filmmaker’s works in a Japanese cultural context – also pointed out that what he describes as the «borderless action» and «colourful hybrid of musicals, youth and crime movies» to a large extent was informed by western sources, creating a cinematic universe with little resemblance to contemporary Japanese reality (the western influence on Japanese culture in the early twentieth century is also explored in the slow Kabuki-esque, surrealist ghost stories in Suzuki’s independently produced “Taisho” trilogy of the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with the extraordinary Zigeunerweisen from 1980). Suzuki was also among the first examples of a Japanese filmmaker embraced as an auteur in western cinephilia culture whose films reveled in genre and pop culture aesthetics.
«In my films, time and space are nonsense», Suzuki famously stated, a declaration quoted in the title of Tom Vick’s recent book on the filmmaker. Youth of the Beast (Yaju no seishun), a yakuza film set in Tokyo, is sometimes described as his “breakthrough” film, even though it was the twenty-eighth film he made for Nikkatsu (one of four films he directed in 1963), and was released only four years before he was fired by the company in 1967, accused by the president of Nikkatsu of being a «director who makes incomprehensible films» (after making forty films for the company since 1954).
In Youth of the Beast, Suzuki’s voracious exploration of sensory overload (and information overload) is most clearly expressed through his continuous use of multilayered images, of frames within frames. «My view is that film is nothing but a form», the filmmaker once said in an interview. The concreteness of the Tokyo locations and the violent action are destabilized constantly destabilized, moving into the realm of the abstract and hallucinatory through Suzuki’s use of space and composition.
Gilles Deleuze suggestively describes, in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image,the «secondary, tertiary, etc.» frames in cinema, represented by, for example, «doors, windows, box office windows, skylights, car windows, mirrors», and how such frames constitute parts or “subsets” of the film frame as and overall set, as well as being both separated and converging with the «closed system» of the film image. Drawing in part on Deleuze, Anne Friedberg has historicized the frame within the frame within a broader concept of the multiple, which also includes composite shots, split-screens, and multiple screens. The film begins and ends with composite images, chromatic hybridizations where colour elements are placed within an otherwise black-and-white image: red and green letters in the beginning, three red flowers at the end. The frames within the frame, described by Jacques Aumont as «over-framing» often serve as reminders of the out-of-field, the remainder of the world seemingly left out of the film frame in its fundamental combination of openness and incompleteness. As argued by André Bazin, the film image can potentially change its boundaries, and elements from the out-of-field can always appear or disappear, and here, objects and people appear unexpectedly, from the numerous openings of the rooms and locations depicted in the film.
There is a constant interplay between foreground and background; curtains are drawn and opened, people are looking through windows that form their own frames within the image. There are striking wallpapers, paintings, windows, doors, film posters. Objects and people are doubled through numerous reflective surfaces. The mirror in the night club scene early in the film is revealed to be a double-sided mirror; the transparency of the dance in the darkened room of the background, reflected through the mirror, functions as a contrast to the stark violence taking place in the foreground. Similarly, several scenes take place in a cinema, behind the screen as films are being projected, providing not so much a sense of depth as an overwhelming, destabilizing quantity of movement of parallel gestures, framings and narratives seemingly unrelated to the (at times violent) action in the foreground of the image. The presence of a diegetic film screen within a film image was once described by Christian Metz as a self-reflexive «diegetization of the apparatus»; in the liner notes for the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray edition of the film (2014), Frederick Veith and Phil Kaffen demonstrate how left-oriented Japanese film criticism in the late 1960s and early 1970s interpreted the self-reflexivity of Suzuki’s cinema both in terms of exposing capitalism but also (in the writings of Hasumi Shigeko) as a cinema of surface, requiring its own political and methodological vocabulary. Through his destabilizing of space and action, of genre conventions and notions of national cinema, of the complicated relationship between politics and form, depth and surface, Suzuki created a unique form of cinema that still seems to escape definition.
Eirik Frisvold Hanssen