There’s a common bootstrap-y belief that true talent shows itself with a minimum of resources. No filmmaker proved that better than Seijun Suzuki, the nihilistic trickster of Japanese cinema, who passed away this week at the age of 93. But Suzuki was more than just a resourceful idealist: His greatest cinematic highs are enormous middle fingers to the studio system in which he worked. While his overlords were imposing budgetary and stylistic restrictions on him in the desperate hope that he would make a marketable product, he went and made Branded to Kill, one of the most unhinged and expressive works of Japanese genre cinema.
To get a sense of Suzuki’s rise to cult notoriety, it helps to think of mid-century Japanese cinema as analogous to the modern-day content farm. There were quotas to be met, and mid-level studios like the Nikkatsu Company, back in production after ceasing operations during WWII, had to churn out enough B-movies to complement their top-tier releases. There was more content to make than bodies to make it, and that’s when Suzuki, fresh off a booze-soaked stint in the military, found himself working as an assistant director. The Japanese film-production world was a kind of temporary Wild West, no longer locked into the hierarchical promotion system that brought up Ozu and Kurosawa. Suzuki rose up through the reshuffling almost by accident, but once he became a director, he made sure nobody forgot his name.
Suzuki was an unrepentant rebel whose only cause was pure, transportive entertainment. As soon as he began his tenure as a director at Nikkatsu, he began producing up to six films a year — primarily run-of-the-mill crime stories about gangsters and prostitutes churned out by the studio’s scores of screenwriters. “The scripts I received from the studio weren’t artistic to begin with, so there was no hope of making an artistic film from the script,” he said in a 1997 interview. “The only thing that I could hope to do was make movies fun and entertaining.” To Suzuki, that meant ratcheting up the nudity and sex, making action scenes so conceptual that they were nearly impossible to follow, and using color (while he was allowed to) to dreamy, illogical effect. What other filmmakers may have seen as disposable pulp became in his hands towering postwar mood pieces such as Gate of Flesh, Story of a Prostitute, and Youth of the Beast, which increasingly baffled contemporary filmgoers and critics. Among other things, his career is an exhilarating case for the power of the hired-gun director at a time when auteurs were becoming king on the other side of the globe. Despite his abundant creativity, filmmaking for Suzuki was first and foremost a job.
Nikkatsu responded to his experimental insubordination by reducing his budget and also forbidding him to use color after the now-classic Tokyo Drifter, a film whose strategically vibrant hues stay burned in one’s memory long after the pedestrian story line has faded away. But then Branded to Kill came down the pipeline. Two days before production began, the script was deemed “inappropriate” and in need of a rewrite. Who knows what possessed the Nikkatsu heads to put Suzuki on the job, but when he came back with a butterfly-adorned, absurdist, paranoid art film about an assassin who gets off on the smell of boiling rice, he was dismissed from the studio and blacklisted for ten years.
The dismissal and ensuing court battle might have been the best thing to ever happen to Suzuki, turning him into a symbol of free expression for movie fans around the globe. By the 1980s, he had become an art-house staple in the States, influencing a growing crop of independent filmmakers. It’s hard to imagine Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man without Suzuki’s abstract and mischievous influence lurking in the background.
But his late-career status as an important artist never changed Suzuki’s image of himself, which was always stubbornly unpretentious, more suited to the predictable structure of the studio system than the life of an independent writer-director. His death comes after another extended hiatus from filmmaking — due to health issues, Suzuki hadn’t directed a movie since 2005’s Princess Raccoon, but his output began to slow as early as the 1980s, when he made his triumphant return to filmmaking. It’s notable that even after all the bad blood, Nikkatsu issued the announcement of his death. It was his true home, despite everything.