Seijun Suzuki was a Japanese filmmaker, actor, and screenwriter. His films are known for their jarring visual style, irreverent humour, nihilistic cool and entertainment-over-logic sensibility.
Let’s see some interesting facts about him!
1. Seitaro Suzuki was born 24 May 1923, during the Taishō period, in the Nihonbashi Ward (now the Chūō Special Ward) in Tokyo.
2. His younger brother, Kenji Suzuki (now a retired NHK television announcer), was born six years his junior.
3. His family was in the textile trade.
4. After earning a degree at a Tokyo Trade School in 1941,
5. Suzuki applied to the college of the Ministry of Agriculture, but failed the entrance exam due to poor marks in chemistry and physics.
6. A year later he successfully enrolled in a Hirosaki college.
7. In 1943, he was recruited by the Imperial Japanese Army during the national student mobilization to serve in World War II. Sent to East Abiko, Chiba, he was assigned the rank of Private Second Class.
8. He was shipwrecked twice throughout his military service; first the cargo ship that was to take him to the front was destroyed by an American submarine and he fled to the Philippines. Later, the freighter that took him to Taiwan sank after an attack by the American air force, and he spent 7 or 8 hours in the ocean before being rescued.
9. In 1946, having attained the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Meteorological Corps, he returned to Hirosaki and completed his studies.
10. He has also said that he often found the horrors of war comical, such as men being hoisted on board his ship with ropes and being battered black and blue against the hull, or the bugler blasting his trumpet every time a coffin was thrown into the sea. Ian Buruma writes, “The humour of these situations might escape one who was not there. But Suzuki assures us that it was funny.”
11. Next he applied to the prestigious University of Tokyo, but again failed the entrance exam.
12. At the invitation of a friend, who had also failed the exam, Suzuki enrolled into the film department of the Kamakura Academy.
13. In October 1948, he passed the Shochiku Company’s entrance exam and was hired as an assistant director in the company’s Ōfuna Studio. There he worked under directors Minora Shibuya, Yasushi Sasaki, Noboru Nakamura and Hideo Oniwa before joining the regular crew of Tsuruo Iwama.
14. In 1954, the Nikkatsu Company reopened its doors after having ceased all film production at the onset of the war. It lured many assistant directors from the other major film studios with the promise of circumventing the usual long queue for promotion. Among these wayfarers was Suzuki, who took an assistant directing position there at approximately 3 times his previous salary.
15. In 1956, he became a full-fledged director.
16. His directorial debut, credited to his real name, Seitarō Suzuki, was Victory Is Mine, a kayo eiga, or pop song film, part of a subgenre that functioned as a vehicle for hit pop records and singers. Impressed by the film’s quality Nikkatsu signed him to a longterm contract.
17. Nearly all of the films that he made for Nikkatsu were program pictures, or B-movies, production-line genre films made on a tight schedule and shoestring budget that were meant to fill out the second half of a double feature. B-directors were expected to work fast, taking any and every script that was assigned to them, and they refused scripts only at the risk being dismissed.
18. Suzuki maintained an impressive pace, averaging 3½ films per year, and claims to have turned down only 2 or 3 scripts during his years at the studio.
19. His third film and first yakuza action movie, Satan’s Town, linked him inexorably to the genre. Underworld Beauty (1958) marked his first CinemaScope film and was also the first to be credited to his pseudonym Seijun Suzuki.
20. Having enjoyed moderate success, his work began to draw more attention, especially among student audiences, with 1963’s Youth of the Beast which is considered his “breakthrough” by film scholars. Suzuki himself calls it his “first truly original film.”
21. His style increasingly shirked genre conventions, favouring visual excess and visceral excitement over a coherent plot and injecting madcap humour into a normally solemn genre, developing into a distinctive “voice”.
22. His fan base grew rapidly, but did not extend to studio president Kyusaku Hori. Beginning with Tattooed Life, the studio issued Suzuki his first warning for “going too far”. He responded with Carmen from Kawachi after which he was ordered to “play it straight” and had his budget slashed for his next film. The result was Tokyo Drifter, an “ostensibly routine potboiler” made into a “jaw-dropping, eye-popping fantasia”.
23. Further reduced to filming in black-and-white Suzuki made his 40th film in his 12 years with the company, Branded to Kill (1967), considered an avant-garde masterpiece by critics, for which Hori promptly fired him.
24. Suzuki reported the illegal termination of his contract and the removal of his films from distribution to the Japanese Film Directors Association. Association chairman Heinosuke Gosho met with Hori on 2 May, but was unable to resolve the matter. Gosho then issued a public declaration condemning Nikkatsu for breach of contract and violation of Suzuki’s right to freedom of speech.
25. On 12 February 1971 testimony was completed and a verdict expected. However, in March the court advised a settlement, explaining appeals were extremely time consuming.
26. Negotiations began on 22 March and concluded on 24 December, three and a half years after the case had begun. Nikkatsu paid Suzuki ¥1 000 000, a fraction of his original claim, and Hori was forced to apologize for comments he made while serving as president. =
27. During the course of the litigation Nikkatsu was being slowly dismantled. Hori’s plans to restructure the company were unsuccessful and Nikkatsu was forced to liquidate studios and headquarter buildings. It released two final films in August 1971 and by November began producing roman poruno, softcore romantic pornography. Despite Suzuki’s victory with wide support from the public and film world he was blacklisted by all major production companies and unable to make another film for 10 years.
28. To sustain himself during the trial and the blacklist years that followed Suzuki published books of essays, and directed several television movies, series and commercials. The trial and protests had made him into a countercultural icon and his Nikkatsu films became quite popular at midnight screenings, playing to “packed audiences who wildly applauded.”
29. He also began acting for other directors in small parts and cameos. His first credited screen role was a special appearance in Kazuki Omori’s Don’t Wait Until Dark! (1975).
30. Shochiku, the company that started him as an assistant director, produced his return to film direction in 1977, A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness, a golf expose cum psychological thriller penned by sports-oriented manga illustrator Ikki Kajiwara. Joe Shishido appears in a brief cameo. The film was met poorly critically and popularly.
31. He collaborated with producer Genjiro Arato in 1980 and made the first part of what would become his Taishō trilogy, Zigeunerweisen, a psychological, period, ghost story, named after a gramophone record of gypsy violin music by Pablo de Sarasate featured prominently in the film. When exhibitors declined to show the film, Arato screened it himself in an inflatable mobile dome to great success. It won Honourable Mention at the 31st Berlin International Film Festival,was nominated for 9 Japanese Academy Awards and won four, including best director and best film, and was voted the no. 1 Japanese film of the 1980s by Japanese critics.
32. Italy hosted the first partial retrospective of his films outside Japan at the 1984 Pesaro International Film Festival.
33. The 1994 touring retrospective Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun showcased 14 of his films. In 2001 Nikkatsu hosted the Style to Kill retrospective featuring more than 20 of his films.
34. In celebration of 50th anniversary of his directorial debut Nikkatsu again hosted the 2006 Suzuki Seijun 48 Film Challenge showcasing all of his films to date at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
35. He made a loose sequel to Branded to Kill with Pistol Opera (2001). Makiko Esumi replaced Joe Shishido as the number 3 killer.
36. This was followed by Princess Raccoon (2005), starring Zhang Ziyi, a musical love story.
37. In a 2006 interview, he said that he has no plans to direct any further films, citing health concerns. He had been diagnosed with pulmonary emphysema and is permanently hooked up to a portable respirator.
38. However, he attended the 2008 Tokyo Project Gathering, a venue serving film financing and international co-productions, and pitched a film titled A Goldfish of the Flame.
39. Seijun Suzuki died on 13 February 2017 at a Tokyo hospital. His death was announced by Nikkatsu. Suzuki’s died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
40. As a contract B director at Nikkatsu, Suzuki’s films were made following a rigid structure. He was assigned a film and script, and could only refuse it at the risk of losing his job.
41. He claims to have turned down only 2 or 3 scripts in his time with Nikkatsu but always modified the scripts both in pre-production and during shooting.
42. Nikkatsu also assigned an actor for the lead or leads, either a (usually 2nd-tier) star or one being groomed for stardom. The rest of the cast was not assigned but typically drawn from the studio’s pool of contract actors.
43. Most studio A films had a set budget of ¥45 million where Suzuki’s black-and-white Bs ran 20 million and his color films were provided an additional 3 million.
44. His films were scheduled 10 days for pre-production, such as location scouting, set design, and costumes, 25 days for shooting and 3 days for post-production, such as editing and dubbing.
45. Within this framework he had a greater degree of control than the A directors as the cheaper B productions drew a less watchful eye from the head office.