I Walk Alone: Seijun Suzuki Noir

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In the pantheon of film noir titles, Nicholas Ray’s 1950 effort In a Lonely Place might stand in for all of noir; its visual style is dark, its themes are disturbing and its characters are lost. But beyond all of that, there is the title itself, a paean to the depths of despair captured by the best of noir. It simultaneously evokes the desolation of urban space, where lost souls can move anonymously through crowds, never once feeling connected to anyone else, and gestures to the haunted people themselves, trapped there, stranded on a concrete island. The films of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, though often wildly divergent from textbook noir qualities, are testaments to this overwhelming sense of loneliness. His characters — fringe members of the yakuza, hired assassins and other criminal underworld types — are with no one and have nothing. In Youth of the Beast (1963) and Branded to Kill (1967), Suzuki shows that Hollywood filmmakers had no monopoly on the aimless drift of characters sentenced to solitude. Occupying a middle space between the classicism of Japan’s most well-known filmmakers and the politically charged avant-garde of the New Wave, Suzuki uses the trappings of noir to explore the ramifications of isolation. As a filmmaker, he does not belong to either camp — his characters are likewise masterless, free agents who trade belonging for independence, but at the cost of their sanity. 

“Honor means nothing,” hisses a red-jacketed gangster to his rival midway through Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1965), a Technicolor yakuza film that veers wildly in tone from serious gangster melodrama to ironic musical, tied together by its filmmaker’s wild, anything goes absurdist style. By the time Tokyo Drifter was released and Suzuki was hitting his stride, Japan’s great masters had begun to exit the stage: the productive collaboration between the director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, which had produced some of the country’s finest and most lasting films, had ended bitterly during the tumultuous production of Red Beard, after which Kurosawa’s films would become fewer and farther between; the ultimate classicist, Yasujirō Ozu, whose family dramas are marked by their quiet mood and visual austerity, had made his final film An Autumn Afternoon in 1962 and died the following year; the tragedian Kenji Mizoguchi had preceded him in death by several years, leaving behind a body of work committed to women’s stories of suffering and woe. Meanwhile, a New Wave was ascendant, as it was around the world in France, Germany and elsewhere. Led by Nagisa Ōshima, Shohei Imamura and others, these politically-driven filmmakers reacted against the classical modes of storytelling favored by Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, making films that challenged cultural taboos, took strident political positions and destabilized the foundations of film form and content. Though they made many films, Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), a Brechtian satire about the absurdity of the death penalty with explicitly persuasive aims, might best sum up the new approach; the film’s sentenced prisoner is known only as R, which dehumanizes him, and the collection of bureaucrats and officials debase themselves in service of carrying out their state-sanctioned duties, which become all the more ridiculous when R survives the initial execution attempt. They debate the ethics of executing him again, while Oshima himself intervenes through voice-over and on-screen title cards, continually reminding the alienated viewer of the political stakes of the situation.      

Suzuki’s work positions him somewhere between these two poles; clearly bearing the influence of the classical period and its filmmakers, especially in works like Story of a Prostitute (1965) and Fighting Elegy (1966), Suzuki also shows a predilection for stylistic chaos and taboo-breaking stories, if not always directly in the service of the New Wave’s political ends. Suzuki’s films stand out mostly for their collection of bizarre images, like these from Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill: a hardened gangster engaged in a lengthy open mouth kiss with his cat; the bloody aftermath of a gunfight seen from above, the high angle shot looking down through a phalanx of model airplanes strung from the ceiling; a gutshot criminal courteously pulling his own sportjacket over his face before the life goes out of him completely; a butterfly landing on the barrel of a sniper rifle aimed at a target, its wings fluttering in the eye of the scope. Throughout his work, Suzuki reveals an interest in the isolated image, the fragmentary thought captured by the camera, always more important to him than any kind of coherent narrative. When Suzuki rejects the classicism of his forebears, it is in favor of dynamic images at the expense of story logic.  

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The stories, such as they are, play like endless variations on the archetypal gangster story of Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest, adapted by Akira Kurosawa into Yojimbo in 1961. In Hammett, as in Yojimbo, a free agent of dubious moral standing enters a dead-end town populated by thieves, liars and cutthroats, and whether out of twisted nobility or just plain boredom, decides to play the crooks against each other until every last one of them is dead. In Youth of the Beast, Jo Mizuno (Joe Shishido) is a former police officer who took a fall and went to prison behind a frame-up; a yakuza family killed his partner while he served his sentence, and now released, he seeks vengeance, using their own ambitions and a competing organization against them. Tokyo Drifter follows a similar pattern, with the singing gangster Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) cut loose by the family that employs him, and then caught in the middle of a turf war between the two bosses vying for control of the territory. Branded to Kill steps further away from the paradigm, however — Shishido stars as Hanada, the number three-ranked assassin in Japan, caught in a surrealist nightmare of his own making. All three films are dominated by their overwhelming fixation on the central characters’ loneliness, which Suzuki expresses through a remarkable visual sense, working both in black-and-white (Branded to Kill) and in color (Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter). In several films, Suzuki relies on Shishido, whose cherubic face makes him an incredibly distinctive performer, to carry the action forward. Shishido understands the tasks before him — commit less to giving a propulsive performance that follows traditional narrative beats, but serve the primacy of Suzuki’s images. Throughout Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill, Shishido’s north star is the isolation that defines his characters; he needn’t give a schematized performance, so long as he fulfills the obligation Suzuki puts before him, which is to serve the loneliness at the heart of both Mizuno and Hanada. Working together, Shishido and Suzuki create performances, served by images, that are emotionally resonant, despite remaining largely unmoored from story.     

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To audiences, whether Japanese or American, trained on classical storytelling — especially from a contemporary context — such willful abandonment of plot is a substantial provocation. Without the infrastructure of plot to serve, Suzuki is free to move beyond its requirements — that each scene must “push the plot along” — and offer something else. This kind of freedom also creates opportunities for stylistic hijinks. During one exchange midway through Youth of the Beast, Mizuno and Sawaka (Minako Katsuki), a gangster’s moll, sit in an apartment having a conversation. Mizuno sits in a chair in a medium shot, and Sawaka is at a table, stacking wine glasses into a pyramid. Suzuki cuts between them as they talk, obeying the rules of eyeline matching that sews two medium shots of characters in dialogue together. When he cuts to a wide shot of the scene after Sawaka petulantly collapses her pyramid in a heap of broken glass, the staging reveals that Mizuno and Sawaka are in entirely separate rooms, facing away from one another. It isn’t incompetent direction — it’s deliberate subversion of cinema’s formal properties, a revelation that destabilizes viewers’ perceptions of what they are seeing on screen. Suzuki’s intentional distortions take on a surrealistic bent in Branded to Kill, in a striking scene after Hanada botches a hit given to him by Misako (Annu Mari), one of the film’s femme fatales. Hanada leans against a brick wall on the left side of the widescreen frame, while Misako descends a massive stone staircase on the right in the far background. They are separated by 50 feet of geographical space, but when they speak to one another, they use hushed tones that suggest intimacy. Their words somehow transcend their physical distance, enforcing a kind of duality — they are both together and apart, an emotional state rendered by the deliberate confusion of cinematic conventions and storytelling traditions. 

While Oshima and other New Wave filmmakers used these kinds of stylistic breaks and disruptions to serve their political ideas, confronting audiences with their arguments, Suzuki is after deep emotional resonance instead. Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill are both guided by a kind of dream logic, with the latter film tilting heavily towards the kind of surrealism more associated with filmmakers like Luis Buñuel. At one moment in Branded to Kill, Suzuki seems to reference one of Buñuel’s most famous works, Un Chien Andalou (1929), made in collaboration with the painter Salvador Dalí, notorious for both its Freudian imagery and its one particular shot in which a razorblade seems to slash a human eyeball. When Hanada is sent to kill an optometrist at the behest of his shadowy handlers, the first shot of Suzuki’s scene is of the doctor removing the patient’s false eye, an image that deliberately calls Buñuel to mind. Suzuki reaches into the surrealist past, but his influence extends forward, as well; another filmmaker interested in the aimlessness of narrative and isolated characters, American independent Jim Jarmusch, references the latter half of the optometrist scene in his 1999 film Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. His assassin, the Japanese-guided Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), targets a Mafia boss by unscrewing a basement water pipe and firing a bullet up through the sink’s drain; Hanada takes out his own target, the optometrist, in the same way. Suzuki’s dream logic, on display throughout Branded to Kill, likewise anticipates the associative approach taken by David Lynch throughout the series Twin Peaks and creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, whose gangster opus contains many dream sequences that walk the line between the gangster genre and surreality. 

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In this way, Suzuki, like Jarmusch, Lynch and Chase after him, uses genre as a kind of bait-and-switch — the setting and story conventions are familiar, but the artist’s individual take on the material reveals deeper, more personal concerns facilitated by the narrative’s expectations. One expects films set in the Japanese criminal underworld to be violent, of course; yakuza master Kinji Fukasaku would spend much of his career providing outrageous spectacles of ceaseless violence, so that murder, torture and rape become something like currency to his gangster characters and those unfortunate enough to be drawn into their world. In Suzuki’s films, there is plenty of violence, but it veers wildly in tone: sometimes, the violence is tragic, as in the death of a police officer that hangs over much of Youth of the Beast; at other moments, the violence is ferocious, like the moment in Branded to Kill when Hanada sets a rival hitman (ranked number two) on fire, eliminating his competition; at still others, it is hilarious, as it is during the climax of Youth of the Beast, when Mizuno and the last survivors of the gang he has been targeting fall over each other trying to fight it out in the charred remains of their hideout, recently blown to smithereens by a car bomb. Mizuno begins the scene tied by his ankles to a ceiling fan, swinging himself back and forth like a pendulum trying to reach a gun lying on a conference room table while the dazed and confused gangsters recover their wits. Eventually, he cuts himself free and struggles with the boss, Nomoto (Tamio Kawaji), falling over debris and tumbling down the stairs, a wrestling match that is more farce than clash of the titans. Throughout Suzuki’s films, the violence is refreshingly unprofessional, lacking in the highly choreographed nature of contemporary screen combat, when everyone seems to have been trained in several forms of martial arts and military grade weaponry. Suzuki’s gangsters and hitmen are flying by the seats of their pants, with little ability to manipulate the outcome other than a brief moment where they gain the upper hand. Even Branded to Kill’s Hanada, the number three-ranked hitman in all of Japan, staggers away from a gun battle with a group of enemy henchmen incredulous, screaming to himself, “I’m still alive! I didn’t die!” Suzuki’s gangsters are not the modern supermen, deft with guns, possessed with incredible strength and agility, and able to take on whole armies alone — their violence is earthbound.   

Because these killers and thieves are flesh and blood, their concerns are similarly terrestrial. Above all, Suzuki’s characters struggle to overcome their sense of isolation, which constantly gnaws at them. Mizuno’s pursuit of justice is lonely — he is no longer a cop, and not really a gangster, caught between two worlds, neither of which would have him. Hanada’s loneliness is somewhat obviated by his sexual passion for two women in his life — his duplicitous sexpot wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and Misako, who hires him to kill someone before becoming his lover. Neither relationship ends well: Mami burns their house down with Hanada inside in a fit of jealousy, fleeing in the nude while it turns to ashes, and Misako is abducted by the criminal organization that wants Hanada dead, before he errantly guns her down at the end, mistaking her for an assailant. But the most poignant meditation on loneliness comes in Branded to Kill; instead of rushing towards an action-filled climactic showdown between Hanada and his enemy, Number 1 (Koji Nanbara), the two men recognize in one another the same drift. After their initial meeting in the film’s final third, Number 1 initially toys with Hanada, promising to kill him at some later, undefined point in time. Soon, Number 1 moves in with Hanada, taking up residence in the apartment vacated by the abducted Misako, the two of them living in a perpetual dance of mistrust and momentary truces. When Hanada has to use the bathroom, Number 1 insists they go together, arm in arm — Hanada stands before the toilet with Number 1 at his back, the two bound together by their loneliness. They walk arm-in-arm down the street to get some food, forging a strange relationship closer than any other in the film. Number 1 recognizes the terrible isolation in Hanada because he feels it himself. He insists to a despairing Hanada that men like them know how to deal with the consequences of this kind of life, saying “Killers live in a place beyond loneliness.” However, his words might also be read another way — that he and Hanada feel loneliness even more deeply than an ordinary person with an ordinary job might.

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For as much as the cinematic experience is communal, it is also solitary. The theatrical experience, where anonymous strangers come together in the dark to watch a film, is a perfect illustration — each moviegoer is alone in a crowd, the illusion of a shared reaction only serving to reinforce one’s isolation. The movie playing on the screen is each individual audience member’s movie. Both Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill reflect this duality in a consistent visual pattern, seen elsewhere throughout Suzuki’s many films — he tends to privilege shots that feature frames-within-frames, which overtly draw attention to the art of cinema and the experience of watching. Gangsters sit at booths in a nightclub in Youth of the Beast, visible from the yakuza’s soundproof backroom through giant bay windows with harsh black frames, each a little movie playing out soundlessly for the gang to watch. Hanada stands in a doorway in Branded to Kill, accepting a threatening phone call from Number 1, who reminds him that a fatal gunshot might come from any of the windows in a skyscraper across the street, hundreds of frames, any of which might deliver a death blow in the form of a precisely aimed bullet. Such a frame-within-frame strategy is not unique to Suzuki, of course — many filmmakers use it to draw overt attention to the art of cinema, present throughout the diegetic world. Suzuki is even more overt, however, throughout both Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill, introducing cinema itself into the narrative world. In the former, Mizuno meets with the head of a crime family in his office, which is located in an operating movie theatre; through more window frames, a Japanese crime movie plays out behind the scene in the foreground, with Suzuki deliberately splitting the viewer’s attention between Mizuno’s descent into the criminal underworld and whatever story is playing out on the screen behind him. In Branded to Kill, the shadowy criminal organization that turns against Hanada tortures him with film of Misako’s torture and apparent murder, her image flickering on the wall in her apartment while he struggles in vain to intervene, slapping at the wall and crying out in terror. In each case, cinema itself offers an illusion — that connection is possible, just on the other side of the frame. Its illusory nature, however, pulls that chance at connection away, leaving isolated, rootless people on the other side. In Seijun Suzuki’s noir, there are only lonely places.  

Youth of the Beast, Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter are available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.