Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2, Border Crossings: The Crime & Action Movies BD Review (2018)
Seijun Suzuki may be the most well-known Japanese filmmaker of his era who didn’t earn his popularity and acclaim making period-set samurai or chambara movies. A dyed-in-the-wool modernist, Suzuki preferred to update classic narrative traditions, while tending to stick to noir-themed yakuza and juvenile delinquent movies throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. He developed a reputation with the rough ‘n tumble crime epic Youth of the Beast (Japanese: Yajū no seishun, aka: Wild Youth, 1963) and hooker girl gang classic Gate of Flesh (Japanese: Nikutai no mon, 1964), before coming into worldwide attention with two of his more experimental and satirical films – Tokyo Drifter (Japanese: Tōkyō nagaremono, 1966) and Branded to Kill (Japanese: Koroshi no rakuin, 1967).
Now, Arrow Video has teamed up with Nikkatsu Films to bring some of Suzuki’s earliest, rarest, pre-fame efforts to English-friendly Blu-ray disc. Following their February, 2018 release of Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies – which included The Boy Who Came Back (Japanese: Fumihazushita haru, 1958), The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (Japanese: Tōge o wataru wakai kaze, 1961), Teenage Yakuza (Japanese: Hai tiin yakuza, 1962), The Incorrigible (Japanese: Akutarō; aka: The Bastard, 1963), and Born Under Crossed Stars (Japanese: Akutarō den: Warui hoshi no shita demo; aka: Stories of Bastards: Born Under a Bad Star, 1965) – comes five more films originally made as part of Nikkatsu’s Borderless Action (Mukokuseki akushon) line, Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2. Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies.
Eight Hours of Terror (Japanese: Hachijikan no kyôfu, 1957)
A bus making its way across a precarious, winding mountain road picks up some unwelcome passengers. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
As one of Suzuki’s earliest films, Eight Hours of Terror tends to blend into the greater pantheon of concept-driven Japanese thrillers, leaving only glimpses of the director’s signature style and his most prominent thematic interests. Key among these is the way Gorô Tanada and Rokurô Tsukiji’s script interjects post-WWII socio-economic politics into the mix – from the social discourse (i.e. the ‘cityfolk’ being the only ones that can afford the bus trip down the mountain), to the passengers singing a Russian folk song, business-minded passengers putting their time ahead of an infant’s safety, and all riders turning against their savior when they discover she has a black boyfriend. Separated from expectations set by Suzuki’s later films (or even some of the latter, more stylistically established Nikkatsu crime movies), Eight Hours of Terror is an enjoyably claustrophobic, slightly silly genre pastiche. It mines elements from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (French: Le salaire de la peur, 1953), various ‘30s-’40s Hollywood gangster flicks, and a number of hostage movies; all with a specifically Japanese influence. Perhaps, Suzuki is guilty of cramming too much into the short 78-minute runtime (the story is busied by a suicidal mother and convicted murderer before the main antagonists even appear), but it’s certainly never boring or short on surprises.
The Sleeping Beast Within (Japanese: Kemono no nemuri, 1960)
A newspaper reporter’s search for his girlfriend’s missing father leads him into heart of the criminal underworld of Yokohama’s Chinatown. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The Sleeping Beast Within sees Suzuki successfully adapting his blossoming sensibilities with early ‘60s mainstream Japanese crime melodrama. At the time, screenwriter Ichirô Ikeda was a well-worn cog in Nikkasu’s B-movie machine, regularly writing multiple scripts per year from 1954 to 1970. From a story standpoint, Ikeda is going through the motions, drawing upon common tropes and plot points that could easily be confused with a number of similar films from the period. Fortunately, Suzuki’s keen eye and some surprisingly subtle visual subtext elevate the material. Some of his cinematic experiments are somewhat awkward, such as the bits where he superimposes actors over footage of their own flashbacks, but this playful sense of trial & error is still appealing in the context of his larger career. Still, it’s hard to fathom him growing from practice runs like this to something as incendiary as Youth of the Beast in only three years.
Smashing the 0-Line (Japanese: Mikkô zero rain, 1960)
Two reporters’ descent into a scabrous demimonde of drug and human trafficking. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Eight Hours of Terror is arguably this collection’s most entertaining and focused of the five movies, but this jazzy, salacious Japanese noir is feels the most (ahem) in line with the kind of rugged, yet esoteric gangster fare that Suzuki would perfect later in his career. Smashing the 0-Line was co-written by Tanada and Yasuro Yokoyama, who offer a tonally consistent, tightly-knit story that follows a rather traditional criminal exposé plot, but still includes plenty of unique elements and narrative surprises. I found myself somewhat taken aback by the film’s early brutality, which, though tame by the standards of the next decade of Nikkatsu action/exploitation, is shocking for 1960 standards. This includes a savage beating and (thankfully implied) gang rape. Gorgeously shot and brimming with melodrama, Smashing the 0-Line is flavoured by its travelogue tour of rural and urban locations and anchored by great performances from Hiroyuki Nagato and Sanae Nakahara.
Tokyo Knights (Tokyo naito, 1961)
A high school student takes over the family’s organised crime business. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Despite its crime world themes and contemporary setting, Tokyo Knights feels like an outlier in this particular collection. For the most part, it fits with Suzuki’s typical themes, but, even with its labour dispute and criminal machination subplots intact, the brash comedy and lack of a lucid tone make it feel more like a work-for-hire project than the more focused films included here. Iwao Yamazaki’s script (based on a novel by Kenzaburo Hara) is ultimately stretched too thin between too many genres – social satire, character drama, high school slapstick comedy, yakuza thriller, doomed romance, murder mystery, et cetera – to work as anything but an odd aside in a brilliant career. And I haven’t even mentioned the musical breaks. Though these reek of studio mandates, they do stand out as the most stylish moments in the entire movie, so it hardly feels like a tragedy. At the very least, Suzuki seems to have been ahead of the curve in even attempting to mix so many disparate genre categories. The stunningly dramatic climax is very well-executed, too.
The Man with a Shotgun (Japanese: Sandanju no otoko, 1961)
A wandering hunter arrives in a remote mountain town with his trusty shotgun in tow and quickly takes over as the new sheriff. The Man with a Shotgun represents a largely forgotten era of counter-culture Japanese westerns that predated the more well-known, largely Italian-made spaghetti/Euro westerns. In true Suzuki tradition, however, it is not a period piece; rather, a modern-set potpourri of western and yakuza story/character types. What’s particularly interesting are all the little things that the script (by Yoshikazu Ishii and Nikkatsu regular Takeo Matsuura) has in common with Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, itself released the same year and went on to inspire the aforementioned spaghetti westerns. Of course, neither story is entirely unique in the first place ([i]Yojimbo[/i] was itself based on two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest) and it is each filmmaker’s method that sets them apart. In this case, Suzuki leans into busy and wildly colourful widescreen mise en scene, fabulous action scenes, and the brawny charms of leads Hideaki Nitani and Yuji Kodaka to cover the boilerplate nature of the plot and its morality plays. For the most part, the approach works as, once again, the film is anything but boring.
Like all of the other Arrow/Nikkatsu team-ups, every film in this set was remastered from original film elements by Nikkatsu, before the digital files given over to Arrow. Additional restoration was performed at R3store Studios in London and the five relatively short features have been squeezed onto two BD50 discs (three on one, two on the other) with relatively few supplemental features. The 1080p transfers generally match the expectations set by Arrow’s other Nikkatsu discs. There’s a bit more wear & tear than you’d see from the studio’s big, 4K in-house restorations, including minor white flecks, small black scratches, and occasionally awkward transitions between edits (splice marks, white flashes at the top and bottom of the frame, et cetera). For the sake of reference, Eight Hours of Terror is the only film framed at 1.33:1 and it, along with The Sleeping Beast Within and Smashing the 0-Line, were shot using stark, moody black & white photography, rather than the flashy color of the other two movies. In most cases, the gradient and contrasting qualities are quite subtle, but there are some darker exteriors that are too underlit and end up appearing slightly muddy. The Man with a Shotgun is at once the most brilliant and the most physically damaged film in the set. Its color quality is so breathtaking that it’s easy to forgive the multitude of blue/white scratches and splice marks. Note that the distortion appearing on the edges of the frame throughout all of 2.35:1 productions is a normal anamorphic lens artifact.
All five films are presented in their original mono Japanese and uncompressed LPCM sound. Quality varies from movie to movie, but there’s very little to complain about. Dialogue and incidental effects are crisp, even if they aren’t particularly deep-set or dynamic. The music is supplied by Takio Niki (Eight Hours of Terror), Hajime Kaburagi (The Sleeping Beast Within), Taiichirô Kosugi (Smashing the 0-Line), Seitarô Ômori (Tokyo Knights), and Masayoshi Ikeda (The Man with a Shotgun). Ikeda’s music is arguably the standout, thanks to its mix of songs and standard issue score, though Tokyo Knights features the most musical performance breaks – all of which require more aural layering than the typical exposition sequences.
Commentary with author Jasper Sharp on Smashing the 0-Line – The author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (FAB Press, 2008) and co-author of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Stone Bridge Press, 2004, with Tom Mes) presents a typically well-researched commentary. He covers Smashing the 0-Line’s production, its place in Suzuki’s greater canon, and the careers of the cast & crew, while also comparing the film to The Sleeping Beast Within.
Tony Rayns on the Crime and Action Movies (49:23, HD) – The Monthly Film Bulletin, BFI, and Sight & Sound critic and historian covers all five films in this lengthy and extensive interview featurette.
Trailers for Man with a Shotgun and Tokyo Knights.
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