Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to Seijun Suzuki: an interview with Chris D.

Cultural heroes of mine don't loom much larger than Chris Desjardins, better known as Chris D. For one thing, there's really no way to measure the impact or importance of those early Flesh Eaters albums on me. I was actively shopping for punk rock when A Hard Road to Follow first came out, snagging it in 1983 at Odyssey Imports based on the name of the band and the cover photo alone. It was a great call on the part of my 15 year old self: songs like "Eyes Without a Face" and "Life's a Dirty Rat" are etched about as deep into the soundtrack of my life as it's possible to get (or check out the death's head pulp rock video for "The Wedding Dice," which you can see as an extra on the Criterion release of Border Radio, which Chris stars in). I suspect what some people get from the Misfits, I get from the Flesh Eaters, whose horror-rock elements are taken several steps further by Chris D's taste for all manner of pulp culture and his craft as a poet and writer. Hell, there are tons of films that I now love that I heard of first through Flesh Eaters song lyrics, not even realizing for years that they were the titles of movies - including, of course, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, but also, say, lesser known gems like Tomorrow Never Comes (song here).

Anyhow: I had the privilege to interview Mr. Desjardins a couple of times last year (for Big Takeover online and two print issues). This focused mostly on his time in the Flesh Eaters, but there's a lot else that he's done - including writing novels (one of which I reviewed here). And of course, Chris is also a film scholar and Yakuza movie expert, with commentaries on several Japanese films out there. I own one book of his film criticism, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, and am presently waiting for his authoritative, illustrated, 800-page Gun and Sword: an Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980 to arrive in the mail.

So with a hefty Seijun Suzuki retrospective starting tonight at the Cinematheque, it seemed appropriate to ask Chris for some tips to orient me in the world of Suzuki, which I'm a relative noob to. (I have seen Branded to Kill and bits of a couple of other Suzuki films, but I can't say I understood what I was watching or how to appreciate it).

AM: How does one approach Seijun Suzuki, as a filmmaker, and what's a good entry point? Is there a "wrong way" to take in his films?

CD: I don't know if there's a "wrong way". The first one I saw was BRANDED TO KILL, which is in B&W. I viewed it in the early-'90s on VHS without subtitles. I knew its reputation as a mindblowing work, and it fully lived up to my expectations, a tragi-comic masterpiece about a hitman going insane after botching a job when a butterfly settles on his gunsight. A good entry point for those not worried about a consistently coherent narrative. There are some great examples of his visual humor in it (much akin to David Lynch or Luis Bunuel), beautiful, scarily surreal images, too, but still the requisite action setpieces for those looking for those kinds of thrills.

What's your personal favourite Suzuki film and why? Where does he rank for you in the pantheon of Japanese action filmmakers (or is he best regarded as "something else," an outsider or eccentric or...?)

That is so difficult to say, because there are a number I love equally: the early SATAN'S TOWN, CLANDESTINE ZERO LINE (aka SMASHING THE 0 LINE), EVERYTHING GOES WRONG (wild youth film, near the top of my faves, surpassing anything the French or Czech filmmakers were doing at the time and equal to some of the Angry Young Men pix coming from the UK, though shorter and more action-oriented), YOUTH OF THE BEAST, GATE OF FLESH, BRANDED TO KILL (probably my top favorite). Also among his later films, the non-genre TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS and the abstract, oblique – and very long – ghost story, ZIGEUNERWEISEN. Where does he rank? Well, much akin to American "genre" auteurs like Anthony Mann, Robert Siodmak and Sam Fuller, Suzuki, along with Kinji Fukasaku, was not recognized right away. Akira Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, even Imamura and Oshima were always regarded as masters in Japan and the west, virtually from their first films. Not so with filmmakers such as Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, Kenji Misumi and Teruo Ishii, all of whom worked almost exclusively in genre films and did not begin to receive critical reappraisal until the mid-1990s, not only in Japan, but also in the UK and Europe.

My copy of your book, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, is in storage, so remind me - did you ever meet/ interview Suzuki? If so, what was that like? Were there any questions that went unasked - that you ended up wishing you could ask him? Were there any particularly surprising revelations?

Yes, there's an interview with Suzuki in the book, but it was the first interview I did [for the book; Chris had previously interviewed American notables like Sam Fuller during his time with Slash Magazine]  in the mid-1990s and was conducted in a very noisy restaurant a few blocks from the Nuart Theatre, which was doing one of the first Suzuki retrospectives in Los Angeles at the time. Suzuki answered in short sentences, I didn't get to ask as many questions as I would have liked, especially about BRANDED TO KILL and I got the feeling he was kind of sick of talking about his films (something he had in common with Teruo Ishii when I interviewed Ishii in Japan in 1997 – funny to me, because Ishii has a similar reputation to Suzuki for making eccentric films; some are as good as Suzuki's, but Ishii also made scores more of movies, quite often fluctuating in quality from good-to-mediocre and was very successful for a long time at a big studio). One revelation, something that I think Suzuki had made previously to UK film historian, Tony Rayns, was that his use of colors in different sequences (particularly his 1960s pictures) were meant to signify or emphasize emotions or general atmosphere. One thing I believe is true of Suzuki, he is the equivalent of filmmakers like Mario Bava, Fellini, Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock for his orchestration of colors as signifiers in his cinema.
Image: Gate of Flesh 
Do you ever find your viewing of Japanese cinema is affected by being from a different culture? (Do you ever interpret a film or a scene differently from how a Japanese viewer might, or how the filmmaker intended it?

Not too much, I think. But, of course, I'm not Japanese, so it is hard to judge! Suzuki is very much like David Lynch in that he doesn't like to explain his films. What you see is what you get, and it is up to the viewer to connect the dots. That being said, I've always felt a tremendous affinity to Japanese culture as represented in their cinema (at least their cinema from 1945 – 1980).
What treatment of Suzuki/his cinema is there in Gun and Sword, your Yakuza film encyclopedia?

I include synopsis/critiques of a huge number of his films in Gun and Sword, including his hard-to-see more straight-ahead noirs and yakuza films from the late 1950s (SATAN'S TOWN, INN OF FLOATING WEEDS, NUDE WITH A GUN, UNDERWORLD BEAUTY, BLOOD RED WATER IN THE CHANNEL, PASSPORT TO DARKNESS, EIGHT HOURS OF TERROR, SLEEP OF THE BEAST and CLANDESTINE ZERO LINE (aka SMASHING THE 0 LINE) through his early 60s pix like the juvenile delinquent masterpiece EVERYTHING GOES WRONG, yakuza pix like YOUTH OF THE BEAST, GATE OF FLESH, KANTO WANDERER, TATTOOED LIFE, TOKYO DRIFTER through his last Nikkatsu studio film BRANDED TO KILL (1967), plus several more.

If you, meaning YOU, were able to only go to one double bill of the Vancouver Suzuki screenings, which night would it be? If a relative noob (like me, say) - interested but on the outside of Suzuki's cinema were to go - which night would you recommend?
 I think they're running a bill of BRANDED TO KILL and CALL OF BLOOD (aka OUR BLOOD WON'T ALLOW IT) which is a good one, but equally a favorite is the double bill of YOUTH OF THE BEAST and GATE OF FLESH. Down here in L.A., they are actually showing a longer retrospective with some of his late fifties/early sixties B&W noirs like PASSPORT TO DARKNESS, CLANDESTINE ZERO LINE (aka SMASHING THE 0 LINE) and SLEEP OF THE BEAST which are more straight-ahead without as many surrealistic flourishes/images, though still visually memorable. CLANDESTINE ZERO LINE is akin to if Seijun Suzuki made a more conventional version of the recent NIIGHTCRAWLER (the controversial film with Jake Gyllenhaal), 56 years ago!
 Image: Youth of the Beast, above; below, Branded to Kill

Thanks to Chris D. for answering my questions! (Complete listings for the Cinematheque's Seijun Suzuki retrospective here, and check out Chris D's book Gun and Sword: an Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980). 

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