Seijun Suzuki: The life of the endlessly influential Japanese New Wave auteur
“I make movies that make no sense and make no money.” – Seijun Suzuki
Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki is revered by fans worldwide for his incredibly stylised and subversively humorous films like Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. His works have influenced contemporary directors like Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino who have incorporated Suzuki’s cinematic techniques into their own artistic sensibilities. Suzuki passed away at the age of 93 in 2017, but it is safe to say that he will be immortalised in the annals of world cinema. As a tribute to his immense talent and contribution to the art form, we fondly remember the life and career of Seijun Suzuki.
Born in Nihonbashi, Tokyo in 1923, Suzuki entered the world of filmmaking right after the Second World War during which he served in Japan’s Imperial Navy and survived despite being shipwrecked twice. He initially wanted to join a college under the Ministry of Agriculture, but he failed to clear the highly competitive entrance exams. Participating in the endless carnage and isolation of war left a deep impression on him, something that he would use to fuel his vision as an artist. Reflecting on the experience, Suzuki said: “War is very funny, you know! When you’re in the middle of it, you can’t help laughing. Of course it’s different when you’re facing the enemy. I was thrown into the sea during a bombing raid. As I was drifting, I got the giggles. When we were bombed, there were some people on the deck of the ship. That was a funny sight.”
After he made it back, Suzuki considered applying to the prestigious Tokyo University, but he did not clear the exams and ended up enrolling in a film school with a friend who had also failed to get in. Suzuki started working as an assistant director for the Shochiku Company in 1948 where he had the privilege of working under established filmmakers like Noboru Nakamura and Hideo Oniwa. However, he spent most of those early days drinking and picking flowers for his wife on company time. Suzuki’s complacency earned him the unwanted reputation of being a worthless assistant director, but the studio did not fire him. He later jokingly admitted that it was probably because they thought he was a tortured artist who was burdened by his own genius. Suzuki took things at a more leisurely pace and spent most of his time on the bus when they had to shoot on location, biding his time until he took the next major step in his career.
In 1954, the burgeoning filmmaker joined the reopened Nikkatsu Company who were attracting talented assistant directors from all over the country at the time. Moving on to a job which paid him three times his previous salary, Suzuki got the opportunity to work for masters of the craft until he made his directorial debut in 1956 with the B-film Victory Is Mine. It was the product of a Japanese trend which churned out low-quality productions as vehicles for already-popular pop songs and artists. Despite the limitations of the subgenre, Suzuki made the most of it, and his undeniable filmmaking talents were noticed by the studio executives. They gave him a formal contract which gave him the platform to make an average of around three films per year since most B-film directors worked really fast to get out as many projects as they could. Suzuki was not a fan of the lifestyle, as he commented in an interview:
“Actually making movies was painful work, as I often said to my wife. I had already wanted to quit four or five years before. I told her I hated this foolish, painful process. She told me I shouldn’t say such a thing…that if I talked that way, it would come true. And it eventually did.”
As he found his footing as a director, Suzuki’s works grew increasingly experimental and too creative to be classified as B-grade productions. He ventured into the yakuza genre with his third film Satan’s Town, marking his iconic entry into a genre that he would master over the course of his career. Suzuki’s youthful sensibilities attracted students who were delighted with his refreshingly original perspective. Film historians consider his breakthrough film to be the 1963 yakuza film Youth of the Beast which announced to the world that he wasn’t just another one of those subpar filmmakers who had to rely on quantity rather than quality. The strikingly original visual narrative and Suzuki’s dizzying creativity ensured that people took notice of the fact that a new director had arrived on the block who had something new to say. On top of that, he was saying it in his own unique way. Although Youth of the Beast is more celebrated, Suzuki considered The Bastard (1963) to be the actual turning point in his career: “It was my first time with [Takeo Kimura] as designer, and that collaboration was decisive for me. It was with Kimura that I began to work on ways of making the fundamental illusion of cinema more powerful.”
Suzuki continued to charm audiences with his fierce originality, but the studio wasn’t impressed with the artistic liberty that he was exercising. They gave him an official warning when he made the cult-classic Tattooed Life (1965) and eventually fired him in 1968 after he made two of his masterpieces: Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. The latter is now hailed as his magnum opus and has become one of the most iconic films to have come out of the Japanese New Wave. Nikkatsu wanted the outputs to be simple gangster films, but Suzuki was uncompromising in his vision, turning the bland ideas into avant-garde art with flawless execution. Suzuki sued the company for firing him on unlawful grounds, a case which he eventually won but which affected his career because he was blacklisted for ten years. In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, he said: “They said my film was incomprehensible. 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.”
In order to survive during those intermediate years, Suzuki wrote essays and directed commercials and television productions. There were mass protests calling for his rightful reinstatement which transformed Suzuki into a counter-culture legend who had become a victim of censorship and lack of recognition. He eventually made his comeback with films like A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977) and Zigeunerweisen (1980), the latter being the first addition to his remarkable Taishō Trilogy which earned him critical acclaim and several awards and nominations at the Japanese Academy Awards.
Suzuki would make his final film at the age of 82 in 2005: a period piece/musical titled Princess Raccoon. Time has been kind to Suzuki’s filmography as he is finally being identified as one of the pioneers of the New Wave in Japan. His films have been popularised in the West by the likes of Tarantino and Jarmusch who always credit him as their master. Despite his flair for creativity in the cinematic medium, Suzuki maintained that it wasn’t his passion. He said: “Making films for me is just about earning money, it’s not fun at all. It’s just a profession.”