Unlike their counterparts in France and Eastern Europe, for whom "new wave" was synonymous with hand-held cameras, 16mm film and black-and-white photography, some directors of the Japanese New Wave of the early 1960s worked fully within the confines of the established film studios, taking advantage of the technical resources while paying heed to commercial demands. Probably no director of the period leaped as courageously or as recklessly into the pleasures of seedy genre films as Seijun Suzuki, whose delirious stories of hired killers and sex-driven yakuza have only recently been discovered by U.S. audiences. St. Louis filmgoers will finally receive an opportunity to sample the director's work in the series Six Films by Seijun Suzuki at Fontbonne College, beginning Jan. 30 with Youth of the Beast.
Had Suzuki's films been seen on their release by a Western critical establishment whose definition of Japanese cinema rested largely on the models of the austere domestic dramas of Ozu or the rigorous action of Kurosawa, the colorful, even garish Cinemascope-framed energy and the violent, pop-driven urban landscape of films like Tokyo Drifter or Youth of the Beast would probably have been condemned to an even lower rung than Japan's most famous exports, the Godzilla movies. Suzuki stirred up complaints at home as well, though not because his films were too lowbrow. After the release of 1967's Branded to Kill, a routine hitman thriller turned into a fascinating/perplexing study of obsession that is arguably Suzuki's best work, the director was fired by the Nikkatsu Studio, reportedly because his employers found his films incomprehensible. (His firing became a cause célèbre for Japanese filmmakers and critics, but he remained effectively barred from making theatrical films for 10 years.) The bosses were onto something: Seen from a post-Woo, post-Tarantino perspective, Suzuki's films are brash, stylishly sleazy and wildly innovative, fueled by a crazy sense of cool that makes the violent mobsters of Takeshi Kitano seem austere, classical figures by comparison. But he's very much a figure of the '60s as well, a filmmaker in the tradition of such Hollywood modernists as Samuel Fuller and Jerry Lewis, who saw the camera frame as an empty canvas on which color and light -- or sex and violence -- are spattered freely.
Suzuki's 1963 film Youth of the Beast (the word "youth" was used indiscriminately in Japanese film titles of the period as a kind of catch-all signal of hard-edged action dramas) is a good place to start, the beginning of the adventurous path that led to his eventual unemployment. With its broad violence, extravagant imagery and larger-than-life gangster stereotypes, Youth of the Beast hints at many key ingredients of the '60s pop-culture cocktail (from Mickey Spillane to James Bond to Sergio Leone) and set its director on an impulsively expressive path that led to the career-breaking extravagance of Branded to Kill.