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Seijun Suzuki: Branded to Thrill

January 2 – February 1

"To experience a film by Japanese B-movie visionary Seijun Suzuki is to experience Japanese cinema in all its frenzied, voluptuous excess." – Manohla Dargis, L.A. Weekly

From January 2 through February 1, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents Seijun Suzuki: Branded to Thrill, a ten-film retrospective of the Japanese director. Little known in the Western world except by a growing cult of enthusiasts, Suzuki’s films have long provoked controversy in Japan. While working for many years as a relatively anonymous director of “B” pictures and violent action films, he honed a colorful and iconoclastic style that brought him not just popularity but notoriety.

Working almost exclusively in the gangster (yakuza) genre throughout his career, Suzuki consistently linked violence with sex, and popular culture with death and destruction. His films are profoundly modern in their alienation, kineticism, and spirit of rebellion, the very qualities that have made them controversial. Over the term of his employment at Nikkatsu Studio, his progressively individual approach to the conventions of the gangster film resulted in his public dismissal in 1968. The studio head declared the brilliantly baroque BRANDED TO KILL unsuitable for release and “incomprehensible,” a decision that angered many of Suzuki’s youthful fans and triggered massive student demonstrations in his support.

An observation by French critic Max Tessier, that Suzuki’s films embody derision for traditional values and established codes, is perhaps the key to understanding why his work has triggered such dispute. In films including TOKYO DRIFTER and BRANDED TO KILL, he embellishes the code of honor and the rituals of the gangster to the point of eccentricity. YOUTH OF THE BEAST features the aggressive stylization and cynical edge that were to become hallmarks of his work.

His stylization and abundant black humor throw exploded conventions back in the face of the viewer. Taking the subliminal messages of pop culture seriously, Suzuki guides his fiction many steps beyond reality, fomenting moral chaos expressed through deliriously sublime visual excess. For instance, the director’s sense of humor finds an outlet in a bizarre parody of the carnage of war in FIGHTING ELEGY, ridiculing militarist ideology through the story of a young punk torn between his right-wing obsessions and raging adolescent lust.

Three films centered on women, GATE OF FLESH, STORY OF A PROSTITUTE, and CARMEN FROM KAWACHI, paint a garish picture of women in post-war Japan as victims and whores. While other Japanese directors, most notably Kenji Mizoguchi, have made similar points with delicacy and compassion, Suzuki’s comic-book style and bold visuals evoke a chaotic world in which brutality reigns and compassion is available to no one.

Visually, Suzuki’s work is extraordinary by any standard. He is one of the world’s few great masters of the widescreen CinemaScope format, and has devised his own multi-dimensional compositional layering of the film frame, both horizontally and through complex manipulation of depth of field. Characters are often identified by fetishized visual characteristics, like Kakuta in KANTO WANDERER, who sports a sword scar across one cheek, and the upper-body tattoos of the yakuza.

A first viewing of any Suzuki film may leave the viewer reaching for more familiar comparisons: the narrative drive of Sam Fuller; the audacious genre stylization of Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino; or the kineticism of John Woo. Make no mistake, Suzuki is an original, a man hired to do the job of a studio hack who transformed material offered him into personal, transcendent works of art.

– Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming, Gene Siskel Film Center

The traveling Suzuki retrospective is programmed by Tom Vick, Curator of Film, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and co-organized with the Japan Foundation. Additional thanks to: Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Mami Furukawa, Nikkatsu; Azusa Taki, Shochiku; and Kanako Shirasaki, Japan Foundation, New York.

Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the first Suzuki film on any Saturday in January, and get a ticket for the second Suzuki film that day at this discount rate with proof of your original purchase: General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second feature only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)