Action, Anarchy and Audacity. Films reviewed: Kanto Wanderer, Tokyo Drifter, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Suzuki Seijun is a great Japanese director who made his mark in the 1960s as a b-movie director at Nikkatsu, specializing in low-budget yakuza “B” movies. Still directing movies, he’s known for his stylized images and experimental takes on traditional themes. A retrospective of his work — Action, Anarchy and Audacity — is now playing at TIFF. This week I’m going to talk about two of Suzuki’s early Yakuza films, as well as a psychological thriller from the US.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Dir: Dan Trachtenberg
It’s a present-day city in the Gulf Coast. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an aspiring young fashion designer with dark hair and a determined look. She’s leaving her husband and driving she knows not where. But out on the highway there’s a sudden boom! and her car rolls over into a field. She wakes up in a cell, cuffed to a metal bed in a cell. What happened? What was she doing there?
And there’s a young guy in the next room. Is this some sort of prison? She stages an elaborate escape only to discover she’s deep underground, in a hermetically-sealed bunker. It’s the home of Howard (John Goodman) a huge man with a child-like demeanour. He’s no kidnapper, he says; he’s a DIY survivalist. Apparently one with a “black belt in conspiracy theories”. He found her on the road and saved her life. There’s no reason to go back outside since everyone’s dead and the air is filled with poison gas. Emmet (the guy in the next room) says he helped build the place and he isn’t a prisoner — he fought his way *into* the cell when the invasion started.
They form an odd trio. Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr) who regrets not tattooing YOLO on his forehead; Howard, a budding dictator who loves being isolated with a young woman; and our resourceful heroin, Michelle. Is it safer inside or out? Can Howard be trusted? And are they really under attack, or is this just one of Howard’s fantasies?
10 Cloverfield Lane is a follow-up to Cloverfield but completely different. I’m not sure if it’s a sequel, a prequel, or an e-quel (a word I just made up meaning it takes place at the same time as the original). Cloverfield was a found-footage Sci-Fi thriller shot on a hand-held video camera. This one feels more like a stage play on a small set: part horror, part psychological thriller. Excellent acting with an interesting story but one that sometimes meanders. Not perfect but totally watchable.
Kanto Wanderer (1963)
Dir: Suzuki Seijun
It’s the 1960s in Tokyo. Three high school girls – one the daughter of a Yakuza godfather — are thrilled and fascinated when handsome Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi) a young bodyguard notices them. The three sneak into a shop to ogle another Yakuza enduring the painful, but exotic practice of tattooing. It’s Diamond Fuyu, (Hirata Daizaburo) from a rival gang. These short encounters help trigger a series of events of rivalry and revenge within the two groups. One of the young women – the one Fuyu likes — is determined to see the world, falls for a hood from Katsuta’s gang, who secretly sells her to a pimp.
Katsuta, meanwhile, still crushes on Fuyu’s sister, who’s a con artist married to a much older cheater at cards. In this world, Yakuza members are told they should “only wear red or white”: Red means a prison uniforms, white means a corpse. What will Katsuta end up wearing?
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Dir: Suzuki Seijun
Tetsuya (Watari Tetsuya) is a yakuza hood who protects and reveres the gang’s leader who owns a Tokyo nightclub. His gang is falling on hard times. He’s in love with Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) a high-class singer. But when a rival gang try to takeover the club ownership, it leads to a gun battle. Someone dies. Tetsuya takes the fall for his boss. He and decides to “drift”, a modern-day ronin without ties to his gang. HE’s forced to flee to the southern city of Sasebo (a major US navy base). But chased by the cops and rival gangs, he’s a marked man: he’s going to die. Will he fight to the end or die quietly? And who sold him out?
There’s also a “meta” dimension to this movie. The title of the film is also the title of a song sung by the Chiharu the nightclub singer. The song is about a Tokyo drifter, just like Tetsuya. And in a crucial scene, he whistles that song about himself and about the movie he doesn’t know he’s in!
Kanto Wanderer and Tokyo Drifter are similar movies, both about yakuza members who are criminals, but also good, true and above all loyal to their boss. And they both have bosses who are corrupt, selfish and venal. Are they spending their lives defending men who don’t deserve to be defended?
The two films were made 3 years apart but what an incredible difference. Many people say the Tokyo Olympics (1964) was a turning point in modernizing Japan. Kanto Wanderer could be a traditional Samurai period piece with Katsuta wearing kimono and carrying a sword. His gamblers play traditional card games, with nothing modern about it.
Tetsuya, in contrast, is totally modern, western, dressed in a pale blue suit, and lives in a world of pop art nightclubs with glass walls and yellow halls.
Following Suzuki’s films is like watching the stages of Picasso, developing from realistic to interpretive to almost cubistic. He hints at his future style in Kanto Wanderer in a scene where the backdrop turns instantly to an intense red the moment Katsuta commits a bloody crime. But by the time we reach Tokyo Drifter, the characters dress in pale blue or bright red, and most scenes are shot on enormous soundtages with vibrant yellow or snowy white backdrops and stairways going nowhere. Suzuki’s movies are a pleasure to watch and you should see them on the big screen while you have a chance.
10 Cloverdale Lane opens today in Toronto: check your local listings. And Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective is now playing; go to tiff.net for times.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com