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  • Ravi Swami

"The Taisho Trilogy", Dir Seijun Suzuki, 1980-1991

Updated: Feb 2

One of the discoveries of my lockdown viewing was the work of the Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, who could be described as the one-time maverick of Nikkatsu Studios until his firing by the studio in the late 1960's following a series of films that the studio felt were becoming increasingly uncommercial due to their often experimental and surreal nature, even though they were rooted in the then popular genre set in the murky world of the Japanese "Yakuza", such as "Branded To Kill" and "Go To Hell Bastards!!" His firing sent Suzuki into the wilderness and it wasn't until the early 1980's that he was able to revive his career when a long-time former collaborator agreed to produce a trilogy of films that emerged from discussions between the two some decades previously and would be based around what might be considered to be the bourgeois and bohemian life of the wealthy middle classes in Japan preceding the country's drift into militarism and repression in the run up to WWII. The first film in the trilogy, "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), takes it's title from a piece of classical music heard playing on a gramophone over the opening titles and is appropriate to the plot since it concerns two friends, academics, one of whom is a scholar of classical German literature. Professor "Aochi" is vacationing in a seaside town and is in search of his former colleague "Nakasago" who, at the start of the film is being accused of the murder of a fisherwoman. Nakasago is something of a wastrel who has no respect for boundaries, especially when it comes to women, and spends his days in debauchery, while Aochi is very straight-laced but rather non-judgemental of his friend, even to extent of tolerating the fact that he seduces his wife, and the plot charts the vagabond Nakasago's descent into madness and eventual death, leaving behind him a trail of destruction in his relationships in the process, while Prof Aochi is haunted by guilt that takes the form of hallucinatory sequences. The second film in the trilogy is "Kagero-Za" takes the form of a kind of ghost story in which the hero, "Matsuzaki", a playwright, becomes sexually obsessed by a woman and her seeming doppelgänger and is unwittingly roped into being a participant in a double-suicide in the process. The third and final film of the trilogy is "Yumeji" and is again a surrealistic ghost story in which a man, "Yumeji", an artist and serial seducer of women, very often his models, encounters a woman with whom he becomes obsessed to the point of madness and is a loose biopic of the life of the Japanese artist Yumeji Takehisa who became well-known for his portraits of women of the Japanese fin de siècle era called "Bijin", in the "Nihonga" genre. All three films are notable for a very disjointed visual narrative that might seem like a very deliberate attempt by Suzuki to cock a snook at his former employer, Nikkatsu, but is in fact a development of techniques he had applied in earlier films like "Branded to Kill" that lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to the often convoluted plots - space and time are distorted in ways that suggest that the characters are moving through some kind of purgatory where they encounter phantoms. Thematically it appears that the stories all point to the idea of liberty and freedom and acceptance of everything, a fundamentally Western idea at a time when Japan's middle and upper classes were looking to the West for inspiration, before the nation about-turned to it's repressive feudal and conservative past as it became increasingly reactionary and fearful of outside influences before the outbreak of WWII. This is evident in Prof Aochi's increasing self-doubt, as a foreign educated man, that the freedoms of the West may have consequences and that Nakasago represents a darker repressed nature of a pre-industrialised Japan steeped in tradition, ritual and superstitions. Of particular interest to me was the use of overlaid glass paintings similar to "matte paintings", a technique Suzuki had employed in his earlier films and most notably with the addition of animated graphics in "Branded to Kill" and that I have not seen used in quite the same way in any other film in the pre-digital era. These lend a magical and hallucinatory quality to some scenes and suggest traditional Japanese art forms like woodblock illustration.

If, like me, you have seen and enjoyed Seijun Suzuki's earlier grimy and possibly more accessible "Japanese Noir" Yakuza films then "The Taisho Trilogy" will seem like a total departure by the director and can often feel overly long and drawn out by comparison, but it's evident that by the time he made the three films, of which "Zigeunerweisen" was temporarily banned on its release, he was ready to indulge himself artistically without the kind of creative constraints imposed on him by his former employer Nikkatsu and as such they should be viewed as remarkable experiments in film narrative techniques.

"The Taisho Trilogy", Dir: Seijun Suzuki, 1980-1991 Criterion Channel

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