Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective" at Northwest Film Forum & Grand Illusion Cinema: Apr 9 - May 11

Nikkatsu, the oldest film studio in Japan, inaugurated a star system in the late 1950s finding talent and contracting to their Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures compiled in the first of Arrow Films' "Nikkatsu Diamond Guys" by the then-new talent of, Toshio Masuda, Seijun Suzuki and Buichi Saito. The label said it all; Nikkatsu Akushon. The following decade, action films from the studio flooded the Japanese market, in genres spanning yakuza movies, urban thrillers, jazz-inflected youth pictures, Nippon westerns and French New Wave-inspired emotional dramas and crime films. It was these latter wildly idiosyncratic crime movies that became the brutal and boisterous business of Nikkatsu. In these they cemented their effort to attract youthful audiences growing increasingly accustomed to American and French big-screen imports. Amid this abundance of action potboilers, these Mukokuseki Akushon (or “borderless action”) crime films included in Criterion's Nikkatsu Noir represent a standout cross section of what Nikkatsu had to offer. Again from the prominent, stylistically daring directors Seijun Suzuki, Toshio Masuda, and Takashi Nomura. Less gritty realism than macho romanticism, Nikkatsu Akushon was known for flashy stylistics, angst-driven narratives, and a pantheon of male stars. In the span of a half-decade Japan’s oldest film studio fast became home to the country’s hippest post-War talents, their ascendancy documented in Sight & Sound's "Second Youth: The Golden Age of Nikkatsu Studios". With a savvy eye, the new talent and lower budgets allowed the studio to demographically aim for the Zeitgeist's reckless and carefree expression of youth, which became stylized in subsequent films. The rebellious Taiyozoku movement of the time taking it's name from Shintaro Ishihara's breakout 1955 novel, "Season of the Sun" and Takumi Furukawa's film of the same name. But it was another of Ishihara's novels adapted by Ko Nakahira that inspired the real, "Heat Stroke: Japanese Cinema’s Season in the Sun". "Crazed Fruit" was one of the early indicators of the post-War generation's "Taiyozoku: Imagining of a New Japan" a reflection of the tumultuous youth culture in it's growing pains toward the anti-war, generational and values clashes of the 1960s, culminating in the University of Tokyo student protests of 1968.

Following on their "Shintoho Schlock: Girls, Guns & Ghosts" and "No Borders, No Limits: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema" series of previous years, Northwest Film Forum and The Grand Illusion present a retrospective from the most audacious of the bunch, "Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective". Nikkatsu in the throes of cranking out successful low budget boilerplate gangster movies, constructed according to their own well-defined formula, initially had a ideal director in Suzuki. But as time progressed he increasingly bridled against such restraints and went his own way within the budgetary constraints that bound him. Finally having enough of what they deemed were films that “made no money and no sense”, Nikkatsu fired Suzuki and suppressed his films from being screened in the years to follow. When Suzuki won his long-running lawsuit against the studio, the poorly managed Nikkatsu finally collapsed, and in response the Japanese film industry blacklisted him for the subsequent decade. It was the fallout over his singular 1967 stylized shocker "Branded to Kill", that Suzuki was banished from the Nikkatsu Akushon clearing house that had once brought him great success. And though, "Branded To Kill 'Made No Money and No Sense' it's Still a Classic", it is an act of creative defiance many consider to be Suzuki's right of admission into the Japanese New Wave. Choosing instead a personal denial of service to rote, prosaic plotlines, his response was instead to approach his works as exercises in visceral visual expression. Retrospective programmer for the series at Film Society at Lincoln Center and Smithsonian curator, Tom Vick's, "Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki" makes it's focus the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink exuberance of "Branded to Kill", as the culmination of the work of a bold experimenter who's development was underway throughout much of his time at Nikkatsu. Nick Pinkerton's "Pop Eye" piece in Artforum also crediting his collaborators, Shigeyoshi Mine and Kazue Nagatsuka, who together favored a vocabulary redolent with sharp diagonals, vertical tracking movements that pass through diorama-like sets, and punctuation of startling God’s-eye perspective. More than just stylistic boldness by defiant, restless workers tasked with rapidly turning out identical industrial product, Mike Hale puts forward that these breakout works are, "A Symbol of ‘Japanese Cool’ in Film, to be Reconsidered" while The Guardian's Jordan Hoffman asks, "Seijun Suzuki: Can Japan's Cult Master Cross Over?"