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So you are here because you like such outrageous films as
Branded to Kill and Nikutai no Mon. Overwhelmed by those films,
you couldn't help but search for more about this truly unique
filmmaker and found that he has continued to make films in the
last two decades too. That is what led you here, right?
This film is a thoroughly independent "art" film made with fairly low budget. The story is about two university professors who meet a woman... OK, it is impossible to summarize the story of a Seijun film and actually say ANYTHING about the film, as you all know. As usual, the film gets forwarded through a series of images rather than driven by the plot engine. One of his finest works at it. Possibly the best.
Sadly enough, this film hasn't been seen by many outside Japan, presumably because its "Japanese-ness" would prevent them from fully appreciating its mastery (they say it should require some knowledge on the atmosphere of Japan of the period in which the film is set - in the early 20th century - to enjoy its mood).
But I doubt it. This is an astonishingly beautiful and nightmarish film that could be appreciated by anyone who loves cinema, although I must admit that it is not for everyone, not even for a Seijun fan who loves his yakuza flicks merely for their over-the-top absurdity and "campiness." Be warned.
There is no yakuza or prostitute in this film. Only chilling, nightmarish images.
This is a film for those who really want to find out that those B flicks are not the only things that Seijun Suzuki can offer. I sincerely hope that someone has enough guts to introduce this film to the world to make it available in English (French, German, Spanish and whatever) on video. Anyone?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm on a different track from this movie and so may not have understood it right, since what I understood it to mean didn't agree with the summary in the program. What I got was a metaphysical buddy movie about a sane man who looks somewhat like Edgar Allan Poe and a crazy man who seems to be channeling Toshiro Mifune in "Rashomon." The crazy man treats a succession of women more or less badly, more or less with their complicity, and the sane man more or less permits it, and gets bitten for it in the end. Even death doesn't help him shake off his opposite number. I interpreted this as a Jekyll/Hyde story about the two sides of human nature mysteriously but inescapably linked. Male nature, that is; the women in the film are seen in terms of their relation to men. In the focus on perversity and obsessiveness, the plot reminded me of Poe or Rampo (and the movies from Poe and Rampo), but until the last half hour the atmosphere is not much like a horror movie; more as if Bunuel had written a Kabuki play and Satyajit Ray had started to film it but dropped out and been replaced by Roger Corman; except that the films of all three, to me, are more interesting to watch than this, which I found rather long and monotonous. Much of it seems like a play, most of it is in dialogue, and the more visual parts tend to turn arty and a little silly. The last half hour, in which the plot turns ghost-storyish, I found more entertaining but off the point; an easy out. For me the best thing about the film was the performance of the leading actor, which seemed very good to me and which I would have liked to see applied to a different script. But again, I'm not attuned to its sensibility. Perhaps my life is already so obsessive that I'm jaded; a few more obsessions more or less...ahhh, big deal.
Suzuki is generally known for his outrageous, eye-popping imagery. I think his films actually contain a lot of depth and are great besides that imagery, but I know it's the visuals that bring him his fame. This film, independently produced after a long hiatus from film-making, is a different kind of Suzuki. A VERY different Suzuki. Zigeunerweisen, named after a musical composition that plays a couple of times during the film and a record of which plays an important part of the plot, is a rather slowly paced art film, a very long one at that, with an almost European feeling. There are a few striking images in its two and a half hours (most notably a woman licking a man's eyeball), but it isn't the phantasmagoria of Suzuki's earlier films, or his later films. The dialogue is often weird and poetic. My favorite line was "You caress me as if sucking my very bones." The film takes place during the Taisho period, which occurred after the Meiji Restoration during the 20s and 30s. It is a period marked by further Westernization and a loss of traditional values (I might be wrong, but I think Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses is set during the same period). The story involves two friends, a professor and a vagabond, and their relationships with their wives, as well as a geisha they once met on a vacation. There isn't too much story, per se. The vagabond marries a woman who looks identical to the geisha, but doesn't stay faithful, or even at home. The film is mostly told from the point of view of the professor (played by Toshiya Fujita, the director of Lady Snowblood). Like I said, the film is very deliberately paced. It was hard to stay interested at times. But the movie moves toward a mysterious and haunting finale. I don't think I get it, but I found the whole film intriguing, at least. Not my favorite Suzuki by a long shot, but maybe I'll understand it better on a subsequent viewing (which probably won't happen for a long while).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Suzuki's first independent production (co-produced with the Art Theatre
Guild) is a mesmerizing combination of the absurdly irrational,
painterly beautiful, and fiendishly historic. Setting the film during
the Taisho period (a relatively small Japanese period which can
effectively be compared to the Weimar or "roaring twenties" in the US),
it's anarchic and sexuallly attuned characters reflect not only their
time, but the revitalization of such things, in a much more brazen
form, during the 60s. In this way, the film shares a great deal with
Yoshida's Eros Plus Massacre, a film set simultaneously (in every
meaning of the word) in the 20s and 60s. Insanity plagues this film,
and in some ways I believe it's about losing control of one's ability
to perceive the world around them. It pursues the question "what is
real" and "what is imagined", and is, eventually, a Japanese ghost
story about friendship and lust.
There are four (or five, if you count Otani Naoko's dual role as Koine and Sono (recalling for some, Bunuel's that Obscure Object of Desire, another great absurdist film about identity and lust) virile and virulent characters that set the scene. This is a small set of people, two couples really, which the triangles and relationships of the film are formed. It allows Suzuki to play with the characters emotions constantly, using various flirtations, imagined or real, to enhance the dialogue interplay, almost immediately setting up a conflict between the two male characters over a geisha in mourning (Koine). Fetishes of bones and blood set the stage, against a backdrop of hard lines, and an almost immobile camera (enhanced by gorgeous telephoto lense, full frame 35mm cinematography by Nagatsuka Kazue, responsible for two of Suzuki's best looking earlier films Branded to Kill and Story of a Prostitute.) With symmetry playing a key role in the mise en scene, it's no wonder so much force comes from the desires and soullessness of the participants.
What really sets this film apart from so many of Suzuki's others, is his blatant disregard for letting the viewer know what is happening in "real life" and what is going on in someone's head. By the end of the film, much is thrown into question, and we're better off for it. As for the pace, I find it to be a regularly paced film, with brief moments of heightened suspense (at times it's as if you're watching a Paradjanov film). Zigeunerweisen (named after a Pablo de Sarasate piece for orchestra and violin, which is played over the opening credits and a couple more times during the film) proves that as eerie as the truth can be, a ghost story that hides the truth and buries your life in the shadows, is all too haunting an experience. Amazing film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Away from a studio's constraints, Suzuki shows what he can do on his
own, and very beautiful and strange it is too. A precursor of David
Lynch's recent work, we are shown a series of unexplained and
inexplicable events which may or may not be "real" within the film's
terms. it has faults- it's leisurely and too long, to make up for years
making ninety-minute B-movies, perhaps, though the scenes are so
beautiful it's impossible to say which aren't necessary and an
important character, Aeoki's wife Taeko, seems incomprehensible rather
than mysterious, but it shows Suzuki didn't need the bonds of studio
discipline to fight against. A film about the first encounters of Japan
and Europe- especially culturally- it's hard to say what is
traditionally Japanese, what from the book, what Suzuki's contribution
and every comment I make is tentative.
First of all, there's the contrast between Aochi, professor of German (a culture with its own supernatural literature, which may be referred to here), and the vagabond Nakasago: except at home Aochi always wears European dress- suits and ties, polished shoes, overcoats and hats; he is clean-shaven with a carefully trimmed moustache and and well-cut hair. At the same time, he looks constricted and distorted by them. Nakasago is his exact opposite- traditionally dressed and dishevelled with uncut hair and beard, (apparently) open in behaviour and speech, but he was once a colleague of Aochi's and presumably dressed like him then. Their first encounter is unreal- no matter how deferential the society, a policeman wouldn't just release the suspect in a possible murder case just on the word of a strange professor. Indeed, Aochi's very presence at the scene is mysterious.
As well as the possibility that they are doppelgangers there is something eerie about the route between the two men's houses- grottos cut from stone and mysterious tunnels divide them- which suggests it may be a journey to the afterlife or another world. Koine suggests she may be a fox- an animal that has magic powers and can take human form in Japanese folklore- and she seems to age less than the other characters in the course of the film. It may be the way Suzuki cuts or hir refusal to use extras but things happen without visible cause in Nakasago's house. Equally, there's the contrast between and among the women- Koine and Sano, traditional Japanese "types"- are they different people- either in "reality" or the dream-world of the film or the same person pretending to be two people?- and Taeko and her sister- there's some kind of mystery about the relationship of those two, and just what is the disease that slowly and elegantly kills Shuko while others die of definite and specified causes? Does her death cure Taeko of her allergies? What is the meaning- is there a meaning?- of the cod roe she hides- or says she hides- in a cupboard for Aochi? Who is the child Toyojiro's father? Aochi may suspect Nakasaya and his wife or having sex but in the film's reality he and Sono definitely seem to have sex. What is the connexion of the two groups of three blind beggars with the central plot and why the references to European art in their scenes? They are obviously non-realistic scenes- the girls' instrument has no soundholes so would not make a noise in reality- but who dreams them at any point in the film? What is the significance of the Zigeunerweisen- an obvious and banal explanation of the film would be that it is a reverie and fantasy inspired by Sarate's gypsy music.
It's interesting to speculate on these questions- and others- but I don't think there are answers- certainly not clear-cut answers- and I don't think there are meant to be. There's a dream-logic to the film which works beautifully and all we need to do is sit back and watch these strange and beautiful scenes and the incidental music- entirely percussive: bells, drums, scratchers, gongs, which makes its own strange connexions between the scenes. We can look for meanings- humans can't not look for meanings- but they can't be certain.
For those who dig Suzuki's Yakuza movies will be shocked at this
ethereal, haunting, and brilliant art movie. It's one of the most
atmospheric movies I've ever seen. It is technically a horror movie,
very reminiscent of Kwaidan and the later J-horror films of Kiyoshi
Kurosawa. Suzuki was unemployable in the Japanese film history until
this picture came along, and it reinvented him as a horror filmmaker.
It did really well at the Japanese box office, and Suzuki was
re-established as a filmmaker.
The only warning about this movie is that it is one of the slowest movies ever made. I've sat through Tarkovsky, Tarr, Antonioni, you name it, and this is slower than most of their movies. But it's a work of genius.
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