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Koroshi no rakuin (1967)
Gem of the short-lived Japanese New Wave and Suzuki's FIlmography
For Seijun Suzuki, a mediocre Yakuza product film was not a pay check, it was a challenge. Suzuki was a long time director-for-hire by Nikkatsu- churning out cookie cutter yakuza as anti-hero films for the Japanese masses. However, somewhere around Youth of the Beast, something changed in Suzuki. It may have been the arrival of the likes of Bergman, Godard, and Bunuel into the Japanese art house cinemas or Suzuki's growing fondness of the burgeoning youth culture, but his films took a quick turn from product to art. Comparing one of Suzuki's early Nikkatsu films to Branded to Kill is similar to comparing Brian Wilson's "Surfing U.S.A." to Pet Sounds or Smile--while the genius was always there, it bloomed in full when the artist took control of his work.
Branded to Kill is an existential, post-modern crime film. It is not a yakuza film. Even though Jo "Big Cheeks" Shishido plays the standard anti-hero yakuza hit-man, this is irrelevant. Like Jodorwosky's El Topo, the genre film is only the medium to explore the bigger themes. At the heart of Branded to Kill is a film about madness, reality vs. surreality, obsession, and cinematic art. What the viewer is left with is an exotic miasma of hip sexiness and radical filmmaking. Suzuki was still making yakuza exploitation (the long drawn out sex scenes, the absurd gun play, the main character is way too cool for school, and bizarre incorporation of Western film and T.V. such as the BBC series The Prisoner) but everything is also a bit off- the sexy cool Number 3 demonstrates highly uncool OCD traits such as his obsession with boiled rice and his moral reaction to both his victims and those who betray him. But, most important, is the introduction of a fringe, non-archetypal element into the film--the phantom, No. 1 Killer. In a day when the yakuza script was film by numbers, nothing prepared the audience or studio heads for the bizarre exploration into existential madness which is No. 3 and No. 1's interactions in the final half of the film. And Suzuki would pay dearly for his creative exploration.
Branded to Kill was embraced by the growing left-leaning Japanese youth movement as an anti-establishment sign Japan's art and cinema world was embracing the radically unpredictable European cinema of the time. But the youth movement was all that embraced the film. Suzuki was blacklisted for a decade for delivering yet another noncommercial film that audiences either didn't understand or didn't care enough to even try to understand. We tend to think of Hollywood as a popular or die industry of cookie cutter, safe films when the Japanese film industry dwarfs the artistic apathy of Hollywood. Suzuki became a martyr of the anti-establishment movement and an international symbol that Japan had grown past the domestic dramas of Ozu or samurai films of Kurosawa on the international stage. Branded to Kill would go on to inspire a generation of Japanese and international filmmakers- from Kitano to Jarmusch.
Week End (1967)
Godard's Culminating Work of his Infamous 1960s Evolution
Week End is everything and nothing all in one film. It is a brutal work of agit-prop which treats its subjects with disdain- be they the apathetic and vile Parisian upper middle class or Godard's own Maoist youths. It is a perfect exercise in post-modern filmmaking- a film aware of its own power and uselessness. It is a film in love with and filled with an ethical hatred of cinema. A film where the fourth wall is meaningless and the viewer is the enemy. It is also one of the greatest works of cinema art.
When viewing Week End, one must look at it as a film on to itself and also in the context of Godard's hyper-creative 1960s run.
As a film on to itself, it bends the definitions of cinema as it follows the vile actions of an upper-middle class Parisian couple- a couple high on physical attractiveness with an ugly soul(less) to match. Around this couple is the decay of Western civilization through our avarice, racism, and misguided youth culture (and a healthy dose of car accidents). It is a powerfully political film without really having a specific political message. It is anti-capitalist without being pro-Marxist. It is anti-establishment without presenting an alternative establishment. It is the politics of hopelessness, disgust, and anarchy. It is what Godard saw out of his window in the ever faltering 1960s of youth movements matched with a heightened occurrence of genocide, racial oppression, and despair in the world. Hollywood gave us Easy Rider or Gimmie Shelter to visual display this despair. Godard gave the French Week End. It is the visual equivalent of throwing one's hands up in frustration.
As a bookend to Godard's hyper-creative 1960s period, Week End's true brilliance shines. This is Godard's period which began with Breathless- a film in love with cinema and held together with radical, yet sensible, cinematic techniques. By time Godard's anger and frustration had over taken him (evolving through Masculin-Feminine, 2 or 3 Things..., and La Chinoise), Week End was the end result. While Breathless naively worshiped the beauty of cinema and youth culture, Week End is the "end of cinema". The beautiful femme fatale has been replaced with amoral cannibals (both figuratively and literally). Cinema techniques have become cinema tricks to torture the film's characters and audience.
Week End is not a film for everyone. But those with the right eye for it will find an extension of art as an uncomfortable weapon- a film that dazzles and frustrates. And ultimately, Godard's most honest film in that it cleanly displays his sense of frustration with the culture he despises; the capitalist, Parisian upper-middle class; and the culture he one time adored; the Maoist youth culture of beauty and revolution.
A Timeless Work Concerning Commercialism and Urban Inequality (Just Not For the Casual Viewer)
2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (2 or 3 Things I know About Her) is one of Godard's most fluid and complex narratives, and that is saying much considering the very nature of most of Godard's work. On the surface, the "narrative" (if one were to call it that) concerns a group a middle/upper-middle class Parisian women who prostitute themselves in order to buy consumer goods. Based on a newspaper article Godard read, this "narrative" seems like an interesting point for gender politics.
However, "narrative" or gender politics are really not the point of "2 or 3 Things...". First off, "her" is less a person, but a city- Paris. And it is just not Paris, as in the city of romance and art, but De gaulle's radical transformation of Paris from a pre-war city of antiquity to a modern commercial center. The film is framed around extended shots of constructions sites, developing freeways, and cranes for a reason- to show how this ancient city is being radically transformed with or without the benefit of its citizens. In a way, this film is a meditation on a phenomena spreading around the world from the 1990's to the present (and especially the United States)- urban gentrification. In the push to modernize and beautify a city, the powers that be often step on the majority which make up a city- the lower and middle class. Godard's precise comments on urban planning are 40 years ahead of their time. If anything, "2 or 3 Things..." is far more relevant today than in 1967.
Secondly, the film is an agit-prop protest against crass commercialism and how it defaces and devoids the human experience. The 2 or 3 women in the film (Paris included) are so wrapped up in the base drive for material goods that they forget the very principles of humanity- love, caring for one's family, intellectual desire, and compassion. Godard's definition of consumerism robs a society of its metaphysical compassion and leads intellectual and personal freedom into a locked room. In the age of I-Pods and Paris Hilton, Godard's sharp criticism of crass consumerism is amazingly relevant. It is a wonder that the Adbusters/Culture jam movement have not latched onto this film with a passion.
"2 or 3 Things..." also serves as one of the many watermarks of Godard's highly productive and influential 1960's period- blending the emotions of Contempt or Vivre Sa Vie with the chic radicalism of La Chinoise or Week End. Godard was an artist in constant evolution in the 1960's and "2 or 3 Things..." is one of these many evolutionary steps.
Be forewarned, "2 or 3 Things..." is NOT a good starting point for those new to Godard. It is far too meditative, "slow", and didactic for one to get a true sense of Godard's radical style. I strongly recommend Masculine-Feminine, Contempt, Breathless, Band of Outsiders, or Week End as a better starting point for Godard. A newcomer to Godard's style might be forever turned off by the slow pacing of "2 or 3 Things...". However, after digesting a few of this great film maker's works, line up "2 or 3 Things...". A timeless and extremely relevant film.