Friday, August 7, 2009

Kanto Warrior

Let me introduce you to Seijun Suzuki.

Once upon a time, in Japan, there was a film studio called Nikkatsu. It treated film like a production line, taking well worn stories, giving them to a lineup of directors with a short time frame to film and a small budget. One of these directors was Seijun Suzuki, who was making B-movies. Suzuki soon realized that, since he wasn't the main draw, he could do whatever he wanted and nobody would notice. His films got steadily weirder, as he generally mucked about on company time, ignoring scripts and getting all silly with the camera and editing. He figured that by staying under budget and on time, he could do whatever he wanted. Eventually, the bosses at Nikkatsu caught on, and fired him after he made Branded to Kill, for making "movies that didn't make any sense and didn't make any money."

To be fair, they had a point.

Let's be honest, as someone who loves inventive visuals and can get behind movies that don't make any sense, I like Suzuki. Whatever one thinks of the stories of his movies, they look cool, and they do a lot with a very obviously limited budget. He's one of those directors who sees the screen as a toy, something he can use to make whatever he wants. As such, he'll often do tricks with light, unconventional framing, or in his best party trick, use the limitations of his set to make some sort of strange artistic point, such as having the walls collapse and having the outside be solid red.

Truth be told, it's important that he gets clever with his filming, and often ignores his scripts, because he's not really given great material. Take Kanto Wanderer, today's random movie. The story doesn't really have an overarching plot, just an assortment of subplots colliding in a fiery car crash. The star is Akira Kobayashi, and he's a Yakuza, or Japanese gangster. He also wears absurd eyebrows for some reason, though this isn't as bad as the bizarre chipmunk cheeks of the star of Branded to Kill. He's really the only link between the assortment of storylines, which all haphazardly combine in the end. There's really no overarching plot here, just a bunch of things that happen.

If any other director approached this film, it would just be a forgettable b-movie from the 60s. In a way, it still is, but there are glimmers of clever film making. Suzuki plays merrily with light and shadow, and some scenes are more notable for the clever lighting used than what is happening. There are also some scenes which serve to make some sort of thematic point, purely by the way they're shot. There are school girls that are shot in an idyllic, dream-like manner, but only when they're alone. Otherwise, it's a gritty world, to suggest some sort of point about innocence.

As Suzuki goes, while this has elements of his style, it's really not quite special enough to be considered one of his best works. However, you've got to appreciate just how much he plays with the format, and how much better it makes this movie as a result. It's not great, but without the adventures in lighting, it would have been terrible. You can see on many frames there's real creativity there. It's a film by a director slowly finding his voice and his eyes, and there are snippets of clever in the middle of a fairly standard film. It's not as amazing as what killed his career, but it is a glimpse into a developing style.

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