a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Kanto Wanderer (1963, Seijun Suzuki)

Katsuta may be a member of the yakuza, but that doesn’t mean he ain’t ethical. Shit kicks into motion when Katsuta’s gang family’s gambling parlor is taken over, leading him to enact revenge while Tetsu, effortlessly the most simpletonish of the gang, forces a wily sailor-suited schoolgirl Katsuta briefly befriended into some kind of bonded prostitution pact. On his travels, Katsuta runs into an old flame, now a card trickster, and we see a brief flashback wherein it’s stated that, yes, they did have an attraction. Alas, she’s not only the sister of one of his bosses, Diamond Fuyu, but also currently married to Okaru-Hachi, who’s...someone important.

So, yes, plot isn’t Kanto Wanderer’s strongest suit, which is to say it’s negligible and there’s far too much of it. (A fuck off amount of it, in fact.) Those who recognize the director, however, shouldn’t fear. The Japanese film factory’s rough equivalent to France’s Godard and America’s Altman, Suzuki spent 11 years making something to the tune of 40 pictures, every last one of them of the B- variety and boasting standard-issue scripts. Bored by the material but in love with the possibilities of the medium, he went farther into the nether regions than both Godard or Altman (arguably), shooting them in a way that, at times, is so abstract as to garner comparisons to Cocteau and maybe, if you stretch things a bit, Brakhage. Finally, he went too far with the double dose of Tokyo Drifter and, most egregiously, Branded to Kill*. Upon seeing the latter, had-enough-crap Nikkatsu Studios fired him; he tired to sue and was blacklisted for ten years. The happy ending? He toiled in television for years and made a comeback-of-sorts with the for-festival-and-cinephiles-only Pistol Opera, which let loose all the visual pyrotechnics and notions inside Suzuki’s head, for better and, occasionally, for worse.

As for Wanderer it’s more for completionists, though that’s not to say it’s unwatchable. In fact, when it’s decipherable at all, there’s a melancholy stateliness to it that feels ripped from Ozu -- compositions become symmetrical and he cuts on rectangular angles, even if he doesn’t go as far as have the actors stare at or near the lens. By the end, I felt oddly moved and wondered why I had been. (Surely not the best response but an interesting one). But it’s the more purple passages that stick out. The opening smash cut into a three-way conversation between school girls is dynamite, specifically because of how Suzuki gives each close-up their own different diagetic noise: the one standing in front of a train gets train noise and the other’s don’t, etc.. As with Drifter, Suzuki keeps his energy in check for the final reel, in which Katsuta’s blade unexplainably turns an entire room red and the lighting and scene changes become increasingly boffo. Word has it that most of his resume is made up of films that do this: that there’s no way he could operate with all cylinders firing for an entire film without being fired. Of course, he was saving that for Branded to Kill.

How seen and more: Wanderer was recently ushered out on DVD along with Underworld Beauty and Tatooed Life in what appears to be a random sweep through Suzuki’s miles-long resume. As with the Looney Tunes DVD Plan, it’s a few at a time, it looks like -- fine, that, since unlike with a lot of directors, his films are best watched over a long period of time rather than in marathon form.

* Both are on Criterion DVD. Rent them.


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