a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Suzuki Seijun Revival

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As Seijun Suzuki nears his 89th year and news of a new film by him is in the works, a revival of his Taisho Roman Trilogy is hitting the big screen again. After being unceremoniously dumped by Nikkatsu in the late 60s, Suzuki made only one film in the 70s. But in 1980, Zigeunerwiesen, the first of his famous trilogy, appeared.  Producer Genjiro Arato screened the film in a tent he set up near the Tokyo Dome. The film became an indie hit that year, winning several Japanese Academy Awards and topping most critics’ best lists. Thirty-one years later, it still stands up as one of Suzuki’s many masterpieces. Unfettered by the studios’ demands, Suzuki let his imagination and his incredible visual style fly. Zigeunerwiesen creates a dreamscape of a story involving Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a professor, his errant colleague Nakasago (the late, great Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s wife Shuko (Michiyo Okusa), a geisha, Koini and Nakasago’s wife Sono (both played by Naoko Otani) in a love pentangle. Zigeunerwiesen takes a strain of Bunuelian surrealism to new extremes, juxtaposing dream imagery, creating impossible and hermetic logical constructions and mostly, exploring the possibilities of mad love – all with a subversive sense of humor, leavened with perverseness and bawdiness. The end result is still eye-popping and thrilling after all these years. Suzuki followed up quickly with Kageroza the next year. Here many of the themes that Suzuki would expand with his later masterpieces, Pistol Opera and Princess Raccoon, seem to get a dress rehearsal. Again, a deliciously perverse story obliquely unfolds. It may all be a dream in the mind of its central character, playwright Shungo Matsuzaki (Yusaku Matsuda). The story is built around a certain object of his desire, who gives him her soul in the form of what’s translated to bladder cherry (actually a ground cherry).  With thematic and visual motifs referencing Zigeunerweisen – two male characters involved with various permutations and doppelgangers of wives and lovers, a juxtaposition of the changing fashions and mores as Japan adopted Western ideas and a fervid interior logic – Kageroza expands on and abstracts it all. Suzuki throughout his career tended toward theatricality, but in Kageroza, the façade of filmic realism is overtly deconstructed. The final scene of the film finds our hero watching a kabuki play performed by kids. It’s as if Suzuki is going into the id-theatre of his mind and putting it on screen. The final part of the trilogy, Yumeji, almost seems conventional against the other films. The story is (very) loosely based on the life of decadent illustrator, Takahisa Yumeji. Played by Kenji Sawada, he’s portrayed in all his pretense and moral failings. The plot twists around a mad killer, a dead (or not) husband, the artist and the women/objects in their lives juxtaposing humor and gravity. A new look at these masterpieces confirms Suzuki’s place in the pantheon.

Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2012

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