Running Time: 145 mins
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Writer: Yozo Tanaka (Screenplay), Hyakken Uchida (Original Novel)
Starring: Yoshio Harada, Naoko Otani, Toshiya Fujita, Kisako Makishi, Akaji Maro, Kirin Kiki, Yuki Kimura, Nagamasa Tamaki, Sumie Sasaki,
This is an unruly and long review for a great film! You have been warned.
Seijun Suzuki’s (1923 – 2017) career as a director is split into two parts – as one of Nikkatsu studio’s stable of salaried directors, he was tasked with making rather generic low-budget yakuza films but Suzuki’s output was different because he had a keen sense of style and humour that subverted the genre products he was hired to write and direct. Brave use of dissonance in terms of arty visuals, sounds and music, and penning irreverent stories with outrageous twists made his films more memorable for audiences but less palatable for the guys running Nikkatsu who were not so enamoured with creating art and more interested in making a quick buck. This period came to an end with Branded to Kill which proved to be a critical and commercial flop and so the head honchos at Nikkatsu fired him for making, and I quote Suzuki-kantoku himself, “movies that make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued them for wrongful dismissal but successfully challenging industry figures tends to get a person blacklisted (just ask Kiyoshi Kurosawa after his run-in with Juzo Itami) and so he spent ten years in the movie making wilderness formulating ideas with other creatives.
Suzuki, proving that creativity is everything, made a comeback ten years later and re-established his filmmaking career with his period drama series, the Taisho Trilogy – Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991). With the help of the theatre impresario Genjiro Arato, Suzuki made and screened Zigeunerweisen, the first of three pure arthouse feature films, with little to no assistance from mainstream studios and exhibitors. Zigeunerweisen, based on the novel, Disk of Sarasate by Hyakken Uchida, blew away expectations and went on to win four out of nine awards from the 1981 Japanese Academy Prize including best director and best film, and has been voted the number one Japanese film of the 1980s by Japanese critics. Not only that, it was a box-office success.
The reputation of Zigeunerweisen is pretty mighty and to coincide with it’s new hi-def re-release thanks to Arrow Films as part of the Taisho Trilogy box set, it was shown at the big screen at Japan Cuts. So, what of the film itself?
It’s pretty special. An imaginative supernatural adventure into the recent past of Japan, the Taisho era which ran from the 1910s to the mid-1920s. It was a time of decadence and political upheaval after Japan emerged from the rapid modernisation of the Meiji period and before the militarism of the Showa period. Westernisation and liberalisation began to take firm root in a land where traditional culture was still dominant (and still is despite surface appearance). This cultural split is examined through a number of dualities represented in the characters, locations, and set decorations, and props. Steam trains cut through landscapes full of small villages with wooden houses. They carry Modern Gals with their short Lucille Ball-style hair under cloche hats and gentlemen in suits with suspenders and bowler hats who rub shoulders with men and women wearing kimono and geta. These people go to gambling dens with Chinese and Americans or they go home to European-style or Japanese-style houses where telephones and gramophones are making an appearance but it is more than just changing times, it is the spirit of the age. Is it a simple case that Japan is becoming modern or is there more hiding behind a curtain?
It is with a gramophone that the action begins as the two lead characters, Aochi and Nakasago, listen to a performance of Zigeunerweisen (German for “Gypsy Airs”) by Pablo de Sarasate, a dramatic violin piece that conjures up Gothic imagery, an aspect enhanced by the presence of an indistinct but spooky voice captured in the recording. This voice is a ghostly echo captured on vinyl but it does have a rational explanation. What doesn’t have a rational explanation is where these two characters will end up and the way the supernatural impinges on the modern world of Japan as hinted at by that vinyl record which will have a key role in events later on…
The record sequence is a flash-forward and we are taken to an earlier part of the strange relationship between Aochi (Toshiya Fujita) and Nakasago (Yoshio Harada). Both lead characters are academics who have been friends from their university days but only Aochi continues his job at a military academy where he teaches German.
Aochi’s wardrobe is mostly slick suits and he grooms himself well, cultivating his professorial look with a neatly groomed moustache and quizzical almost permanently raised eyebrow that seems to invite the world to present something interesting to him. He is very much Westernised as is his wife Taeko (Kisako Makishi) who is a Modern Gal lost in bouts of hedonistic pleasure, taking more time to entertain herself at their grand house than patiently serve her husband. Taeko’s only responsibility is to visit a sick sister.
Nakasago presents a complete contrast. His dress is very Japanese and his style is wild. He has unkempt hair that covers the left half of his face, a cape that flows dramatically around him, and a tempestuous manner that sees him charge after whatever interests him – usually women. He has hit the road as an itinerant dilettante of the grisly, ghoulish, and erotic aspects of sex and the human body – including a fetish for skeletons (an embellishment added to the original story by Yozo Tanaka).
Nakasago is pure id, an unrestrained presence who is all about acting out his desires and he has the flair for the dramatic to seemingly get away with murder. He has a habit of attracting women and his latest one is a fisherman’s wife who has been washed up dead on the shore of a remote community. Fortunately, just as Nakasago is confronted by an angry mob, his much more intellectual friend Aochi arrives to bail him out of a brawl and the grasp of the law and the two make off to an inn where they call upon the only geisha in town who isn’t working, O-Ine (Naoko Otani).
Despite coming fresh from her brother’s funeral, this geisha bewitches the two men. With her Tokyo accent and her sophistication, she stands out amongst the locals but her beauty truly marks her out, an angel amongst humans. She is a febrile presence and an earthy woman with a lust for life and an interest in the supernatural that may equal Nakasago’s. Her story of her brother’s bones being pink in a cremation jar excites Nakasago who takes a lusty liking to her before she disappears from the scene.
Or does she… Some time later, Nakasago surprises Aochi by revealing he has married a noblewoman from western Japan named Sono (also Otani). She looks exactly like O-Ine but is much more docile, a traditional wife who waits in her husband. Her docility seems like a weakness but she also casts a spell on the two men who debate and supernatural occurrences happen around her and Aochi finds himself alone in her presence from time to time, especially when Nakasago leaves home for one of his sojourns. What soon develops is a strange love triangle as the emotional lives and desires of these characters lap at each other loins before the waves wash over them and their grips on reality come loose. Viewers will wonder at everything they see.
It is a delicious mystery to chow down on and since the film runs at nearly two and a half hours, there’s plenty to consume. The story is thick with events and not everything adds up but despite the running time, it never drags. Indeed, it has a stately pace that feels just about right for an examination of everything that Suzuki puts on screen.
Suzuki’s vision of the Taisho era is one of perpetual unease thanks to the pull of the forces of rationality and traditionalism, westernisation and irrationality, selfishness and lust and a death desire. The world on screen is an unstable hinterland where competing states of being seemingly meld into one reality without truly settling on anything definite. Whatever positions the characters take, they are dogged by some duality or other.
Dressed in the same dapper suit for most of the film, Aochi seems to be a moral pillar of logic for the viewer to follow events. He is constantly seen striding through the countryside or at a dinner table, legs crossed, sake cup in his hand, brows furrowed a look of distaste on his face for his brazen and crude friend but look carefully and there is always a glance or glint of hope that Nakasago will do something crazy and selfish that he can admire. He is like a greedy empirical scientist encouraging his friend Nakasago to indulge himself in his most wild behaviour – extramarital affairs make for great extracurricular reading of the human soul but what he doesn’t count in is his friend actually being crazy.
Whether of not Nakasago is genuinely insane or just some enfant terrible is up for debate but he gives an entertainingly bawdy performance (wife swapping) that veers into the terrifying when his fetish for the dead comes to life and begins (polishing human bones to see the real beauty). His influence rubs off on everyone and soon Taeko is quoting him. “Things are best when they begin to rot,” says the wild woman as she erotically licks an overripe to rotting peach and gets its juices everywhere. She seems an odd choice of wife for the seemingly stuffed-shirt that is Aochi but even she cannot contain Nakasago and his passions and, in one terrifying sequence, Taeko is pursued in her own home by him. The camera tracks her frantic run through the interior while Nakasago simply teleports himself (as in, after chasing her around on foot, he just appears) into different doorways and windows on different storeys in almost an instant.
And then there is O-Ine/Sono. Otani creates two wholly different characters through her physical movements and mental attitudes without the need to adopt varying physical appearances. Native Japanese speakers might be able to hear changes in dialect since her characters come from Tokyo/western Japan. Sono is physically fractious and disturbed and seems typify the idiom still waters run deep while O-Ine is smooth, confident, and seductive. Their natures meld together to create one figure who seems to be from a more supernatural realm, someone holding the door open for the weird events that eventually consume the screen and Suzuki’s flare for spectacle comes into play.
Non-diegetic music and sounds, lighting with no visible sources occur often. The use of lighting so that familiar environments become alien or maybe to isolate characters and make them disappear into darkness leads to shocks as arms suddenly jut out or the faces of people phase in from the darkness. Flames burn brilliantly and menacingly outside screen doors which open and shut without human intervention and Taeko’s sister has strange visions. Characters will have conversations but continuity goes out of the window as they find themselves talking in different locations from one second to the next. The sea and the sky will turn blood-red. Everything listed and more provides an apocalyptic feel which is added to by sets where the walls come tumbling down.
Suzuki, long known for filming indoors and controlling his environments through careful set design, chooses to film on location here but his style still makes a massive impact. His techniques all suggest the calamitous states of mind at various moment for characters and the ruptures in normality as different ideas, feelings, and fears are realised. Suzuki skilfully uses visual and aural dissonance to show how notions of the erotic and death clash together with the supernatural to form different mindsets and warp the world. Rationality goes out of the window. If this were a conventional love-triangle, well, there wouldn’t be so much controlled chaos and so many surprises on screen leading to a bloody carnal sea where bones are all that matter.
Is O-Ine/Sono a fox or a woman using these techniques to play tricks on weak-minded men who are themselves playing at being enlightened but intellectually bored? Whatever the case, she has them in her thrall and seeing them gradually float to their final destinations is absorbing.
When the story comes to its end and the credits role the spell cast by the characters and places is not broken. Audiences may start researching Japanese folklore to understand events but they will surely spend more time re-watching the film to get lost in the cinematic landscape that Suzuki created, speculating about what just happened. Have these two learned men encountered a fox spirit while on the road and are they trapped in its den? Could more one or more than one of these characters be a ghost? The answer is possibly there but it is hard to intuit through pure logic which the audience will bring into a first viewing – a leap into the irrational and imaginative might be needed to delve deeper into this glorious and mysterious film to find out what secrets Suzuki has embedded in a world of amazing sights and sounds and some fantastically fascinating characters. All the more reason to watch the film again!
This review was a long one. Thanks for reading!
Anyway, the actors all put in fantastic performances. They crop up in some interesting films where they couldn’t be more different.
Kisako Makishi has worked on only two films according to IMDB – Zigeunerweisen and Disciples of Hippocrates.
Naoko Otani can be seen in more films such as Blue Christmas and the utterly brilliant Wild Berries.
Toshiya Fujita joined the Nikkatsu studio in 1955 and worked as a publicist, screenwriter, and assistant director prior to directing his first film in 1967. He won many awards for films that range from Roman Porno titles to cult-hits like Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld (1973).