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February 08, 2018

Seijun Suzuki - The Early Years Volume 1

suzuki vol 1 cover.jpg

Seijun Suzuki - The Early Years Volume 1 - Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies

Fumihazushita haru / The Boy who Came Back / The Boy who Made Good / The Spring that didn't Come (1958)

Toge o wataru wakai kaze / The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass / The Breeze on the Ridge (1961)

Hai tin yakuza / Teenage Yakuza / High-Teen Yakuza (1962)

Akutaro / The Incorrigible / Bastard (1963)

Akutaro-den: Warui hoshi no shita demo / Born under Crossed Stars (1965)

Arrow Films BD Regions A/B - DVD Regions 1/2 four-disc set

Among the supplements in this set are four trailers from the films in this set. Sadly, there is no trailer for Teenage Yakuza. While all four of the trailers include mention of being directed by Seijun Suzuki, three of those trailers also add the adjective of "genius". I found those trailers interesting as it adds to the picture of the sometimes uneasy relationship Suzuki had as one of the house directors for the Japanese studio Nikkatsu. Here was a filmmaker publicly championed by his studio, yet for the most part relegated to whatever script was assigned to him at the moment. In another supplement, film critic Tony Rayns discusses Suzuki's frustration that Nikkatsu would not allow him to make more serious, bigger budget films unlike his peer, Shohei Imamura.

Coincidences with Imamura don't stop with the two temporarily being on the same career path in the beginning. Imamura's debut film, Stolen Desire (1958) was based on a novel by Toko Kon. The same author provided the basis for three of Suzuki's films, two of which are included in this set - The Incorrigible and Born under Crossed Stars. Curiously, the basic premise for Stolen Desire, about an itinerant acting troupe that mixes kabuki theater with strip shows would seem to have partially inspired Wind-of-Youth with its traveling magic show that features a popular ecdysiast.

As studio assignments, the stories generally follow an imposed template. The main character is a young man in his late teens with a propensity for getting into fist fights. At worst he's a juvenile delinquent having trouble keeping out of trouble. At his most benign, he's just a young man living independently, trying to figure out his own way in life. Romance is chaste, maybe some hand holding, maybe some kissing. Nikkatsu's audience for these films were generally teenagers, born during or immediately after World War II, more westernized than their parents. The starring roles were assigned by the studio from their contract players.

Where one sees Suzuki's hand is in the visual style. Tom Vick's book on Suzuki discusses this in depth. On of the favored devices is the overhead crane shot. Vick also mentions a scene in Wind-of-Youth where Koji Wada is splashed with different colored paint, though the effect is done with changes of filters. In The Incorrigible, light ripples like waves behind a shoji screen. Throughout the films are shots of legs, such as early scene in The Boy who Came Back, when a group of young women gather to gossip, with only the legs of the women visible in the shot. Suzuki may have had Eisenstein in mind when he alternated shots of a kendo duel with that of roosters pecking at each other in Born under Crossed Stars. Near the end of that film, the young Jukichi is described by his father as being like a "fighting cock".

A sequence involving Jukichi pursued by the equally young Taneko plays on the contrast between the two. Taking place in the early 1920s, the prim, sexually shy Jukichi is wearing a kimono, expecting to meet the proper Etsuko. Instead, he is met by Taneko, wearing a western style dress. Suzuki punctuates the sequence by playing with the spatial relationships between the two, usually with Taneko breaking into the frame from below or the side of the frame. This sequence extends from the two meeting at a train platform, followed by a nervous Jukichi sharing a bath with the uninhibited Taneko.

I would like to think Suzuki took a certain amount of pleasure in cramming as many extras as possible onto the dance floor, whether it's a tiny bar in The Boy who Came Back, or the much larger club in Teenage Yakuza. Suzuki may have been pushing the limits of censorship with the otherwise family friendly Wind-of-Youth when the stripper removes her panties to a well timed black out, and later opens her robe to her male audience demanding more, with her back to the film's viewers. Suzuki has his quieter moments as well that are worth savoring, such as a close-up of Ruriko Asaoka sprinkling sand through her hand at a beach in The Boy who Came Back.

In addition to the trailers, and Tony Rayns supplement, Born under Crossed Stars includes a commentary track by alway informative Jasper Sharp. Part of Sharp's commentary is on author Toko Kon (1898 - 1977), who's loosely autobiographical novels were the basis of the two films that take place in the 1920s, a period in Japanese history that Seijun Suzuki liked to revisit, most notable with the three films collectively known as "The Taisho Trilogy".

Masako Izumi and Ken Yamaguchi in Born under Crossed Stars

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 8, 2018 01:44 PM