“I make movies that make no sense,” Seijun Suzuki would often say, and he wasn’t being modest. The prolific director, who died earlier this month at the age of 93, was the Jackson Pollock of Japanese cinema, an irrepressibly creative artist who painted with gobs of color and geysers of fake blood in order to defy the strictures of narrative and remind viewers that movies are more than the stories they tell.
His hyper-stylized gangster sagas, which had a way of turning the most basic B-picture plots into unfettered symphonies for the senses, were born out of a rabid intolerance for boredom; audiences never knew what was going to happen next, and sometimes it’s tempting to suspect that Suzuki didn’t either. Few directors ever did more to fundamentally demolish our understanding of what film could be, and even fewer did so while working under the auspices of a major production studio.
Seijun Suzuki will be remembered as one of the cinema’s genuine mavericks, but his legend was forged during the 12-year stretch in which he served as a hired gun for Nikkatsu Company. Once an aimless WWII vet, he churned out 40 movies between 1955 and 1967. As he moved up the corporate ladder, impressing his overlords with his ability to shoot electric pop sequences on a shoestring budget, Suzuki began to recognize that his job as a grindhouse director was to make sure that the bottom half of a double bill offered viewers a different set of pleasures than the top.
He saw these programs as a warped call-and-response, and he relished going second. If the first movie ended with an action sequence shot one way, Suzuki would end his with an action sequence that was shot another. And since most Nikkatsu fare adhered to the same exhausted grammar, it wasn’t long before Suzuki invented a new language that twisted genre tropes into unrecognizable new forms — a party clown making X-rated balloon animals and filling them with LSD.
Things quickly — and gloriously — got out of hand. When the director’s Nikkatsu bosses caught a glimpse of his future yakuza classic, “Tattooed Life,” they warned the proto-punk icon that he had gone too far. Suzuki, of course, was just getting started.
Seijun Suzuki was “only” able to make four movies between 1965, when he received his first warning from the studio, and 1967, when Nikkatsu fired him for delivering content that made no sense and even less money, but those four movies radically redefined the aesthetics of pulp fiction.
Synthesizing Koreyoshi Kurahara’s anarchic rage with Masahiro Shinoda’s frigid nihilism, “Tokyo Drifter,” “Fighting Elegy,” and “Branded to Kill” laundered underworld storytelling through the portals of Suzuki’s acid-washed imagination. Suzuki leveraged budgetary limitations into artistic discoveries, and these films take pleasure in throwing off the straightjacket of generic cinema.
On “Tokyo Drifter,” a vibrantly colorful revenge saga that unfolds with the staccato violence of bebop jazz, the director couldn’t afford to shoot much of the footage required to mortar his action scenes together. So he disassembled his skeletal plot shot around them, creating a film that owes more to Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Luc Godard than it does does to any of the other directors in Nikkatsu’s stable.
“Branded to Kill,” Suzuki’s last movie for the studio, was his masterpiece. Plunging viewers into a shimmering monochromatic underworld of rival assassins, the film stars chipmunk-faced icon Joe Shishido as a contract killer who falls in love, fails a mission, and finds himself haunted by the deadliest hitman alive. Laced with dream-like imagery and mesmerizing action sequences, “Branded to Kill” is an immaculately arranged funeral parade of perversions — it may have effectively ended Suzuki’s career, but it gave birth to everyone from Quentin Tarantino (who has borrowed liberally from Suzuki’s entire body of work) to Jim Jarmusch (who recreated an entire sequence in “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”).
Suzuki survived his blacklisting and returned to the cinema, often as an actor. His imagination only grew more unhinged during the twilight of his life, but his opportunities to express it began to dwindle. All the same, later efforts like “Yumeji” and “Capone Cries a Lot” displayed an undiminished flair for creativity, and his final works — 2001’s “Pistol Opera” (a loose, female-driven remake of “Branded to Kill”) and 2005’s “Princess Raccoon” (a musical starring Zhang Ziyi) — indicated the restless spirit of a director who would have thrived in the digital free-for-all of the 21st century. Seijun Suzuki’s movies may not have made any sense, but the movies as a whole make infinitely more sense because of them.