They’re dropping like flies. In just the last few days, we’ve lost jazz guitar legend Larry Coryell, mathematician/economist Kenneth Arrow (whose “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem” addresses issues of collective decision-making), and now the iconoclastic, Japansese film director Seijun Suzuki has died at the age of 93.
An inspiration to the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann and Jim Jarmusch, Suzuki is best known for Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), two of the strangest yet most wonderful, postmodernist, yakuza films you’ll ever see. From The Guardian:
Born in 1923, Suzuki served in Japan’s meteorological corps in the second world war, and then in 1948 joined the Shochiku studio as an assistant director. Despite spending his time there as “a melancholy drunk”, as he described it, he was hired by the newly reopened Nikkatsu in 1954, again as an assistant director. Two years later he graduated to the director’s chair with Victory Is Mine, a pop-song movie credited under his given name, Seitaro Suzuki.
For the next decade Suzuki was assigned to a string of B-movies and programme fillers, largely genre material which he sought to enliven through elaborate design (supplied by regular collaborator Takeo Kimura) and surreal, colourful imagery. However, his instincts did not prove popular at the cost-conscious Nikkatsu, and Suzuki was continually ordered to tone things down. Tokyo Drifter, released in 1966, combined pop art visuals with a dreamy, off-kilter study of a yakuza hitman. Branded to Kill, a year later, was another yakuza story, this time rendered in beautiful black and white.
However, Branded to Kill proved the last straw for Nikkatsu, and Suzuki was fired in 1968. He launched an action for unfair dismissal and won a settlement, but was effectively blacklisted for a decade. “They said my film was incomprehensible,” Suzuki told the Guardian in 2006. 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.”
The circumstances surrounding Suzuki’s sacking from Nikkatsu (and effective black-balling from the Japanese studio system) are legendary.
What remains, however, is Suzuki’s bold and daring directorial flourish on especially Tokyo Drifter (1966), where bright, pop-art aesthetics, minimalism and symbolism, and near-comical choreography leave a most vivid and surreal impression, as well as conveying the fanatical obsession with all-things-American-and-British that the Post-War Japanese youth embraced.
For Japan after WWII, it went from Instant Karma to Instant Anomie, at pedal-to-the-metal speed.