There are certain notorious collaborations in popular culture that, over time and subjected to endless rumors and speculation, assume mythic proportions. We seem particularly fascinated by the misunderstood creative genius battling the stodgy conservative corporation to which they are financially beholden, whether it’s Orson Welles trying to eek out funds for one more film, or Lou Reed giving the big “f- you” to RCA with 1975’s Metal Machine Music; it’s the centuries old Artist vs. Patron relationship transferred to the world of litigation, where, instead of having to compose harpsichord essercizi for thirty years for some king’s “gifted” daughter, you can instead “compose” 65-minutes of guitar feedback and call your contractual obligations fulfilled. Such is our fascination with the genre-warping works of Seijun Suzuki, the rebellious bad boy of 1960’s Japanese cinema, and his now legendary showdown with Nikkatsu Studios.
During the late 1940s, as the US attempted to remake Japan it its image, the film industry underwent a period of contraction, with a dozen or so film production companies consolidated into essentially three firms. One of these, Nikkatsu, shorthand for Nippon Katsudō Shashin, promised young filmmakers the opportunity to rise quickly through the professional ranks. Seijun Suzuki answered that call, hoping to bypass the long apprenticeships that were the norm in those days. It was a time when the United States had direct ideological control over what Japan could and couldn’t say within its film narratives, a sort of occupation-imposed Hayes Code more concerned with signs of resurgent nationalism than enforcing the rule that adulteresses must always get killed in act three. These restrictions created an atmosphere of banality in filmmaking, with only the cleverest and most influential of directors able to pull off anything of lasting substance. Alas, in 1951, Suzuki did not fall into this category, and the majority of his early output is the typical contractual stuff: long-forgotten escapist tales, costume dramas, the occasional light comedy. It would be years until he found his voice, or rather, until he was entrenched and confident enough to insert it into existing scripts. The first signs came with 1963’s Youth of the Beast, which critics generally consider the real launching point of his career; and, not coincidentally, the point at which he began to butt heads with Nikkatsu, pushing the envelope for what they considered to be acceptable content.
But it was Suzuki’s subsequent film, a 1964 “NikkatsuScope” full-color assault called Gate of Flesh, where he truly became creatively unhinged (in the best sense of the word). This is particularly clear given the film’s source material, Taijiro Tamura’s 1947 novel of the same name, which was a lurid tale of postwar prostitution during the American occupation. The first film adaptation, released in 1948, was a toned down version subject to all of the censorship restrictions previously mentioned. So essentially, Suzuki took the novel’s narrative and ran amok, upping the smut ante with spitting Machiavellian prostitutes, aimless veterans, bully GIs, a bit of sadomasochistic flagellation, and a random dead cow to keep audiences partially shocked and thoroughly confused. The intense, vibrant color palette chosen by Suzuki and set designer Takeo Kimura (a color assigned to each of the four lead “pan-pan girls”) contrasts wonderfully with the dingy, burned out surroundings of occupied Tokyo. The result is unlike anything done by Suzuki before, and one wonders, given Nikkatsu’s emphasis on producing accessible popular films and clear-cut narratives, how some of these scenes even saw the light of day. It was one of the first domestic films to challenge Japanese censorship laws, and many scenes were cut for international releases, making the narrative more disjointed than it already was, which surely didn’t help its critical reception. Furthermore, the negative portrayal of Americans did not play well with Japan’s cultural ministers; the 1964 Olympics, held that same year in Tokyo, was the nation’s moment to shine, to show off its newfound modernity to the world, not rehash old grudges from its imperialist past. Gate of Flesh was a sensationalist embarrassment miles away from the tranquil and non-threatening works of establishment directors like Ozu.
Nikkatsu’s message was consistent and clear: essentially, “Stop being an artsy weirdo, just make the damn movies.” Given the plots that followed Gate of Flesh, one gets the impression that the studio made a concerted effort to restrain Suzuki’s creative meanderings by providing straight-forward genre narratives with little room to maneuver. Both Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded To Kill (1967) were, on paper at least, rather conventional yakuza “mob” films until they passed through the Suzuki filter. Nikkatsu was in dire financial straights and needed the latter to be a big box-office success in the action genre. But audiences got an inept killer obsessed with the smell of boiling rice and a crime film that, well, sort of forgot the crime (or at least the elements that the genre’s audience expects). It was the final straw: Nikkatsu saw the finished product and axed Suzuki immediately. Despite commendable-if-futile protests from fellow Japanese artsy weirdos, the unemployed director had no real supporters, at least none with deep pockets. He was effectively blacklisted from the industry and would not direct a film again for ten years. Interestingly, when he did have full creative control, his films tended to suffer from excessive length and rambling incoherence; in the end, it seems the meddling Nikkatsu was good at doing one very important (if unintentional) task in the creative process: pulling Suzuki back just enough from the edge for him to make interesting and unique narratives.
Today, along with Jean Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, Suzuki is one of a dwindling handful of master directors from the “golden age” of international cinema still living.