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Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective

This spotlight on the Japanese outlaw master spans his career from his delirious '60s yakuza thrillers to his late-career renaissance as an independent art-house filmmaker.

One of the true madmen of world cinema, Seijun Suzuki is the kind of director for whom the term "iconoclast" barely suffices. Beginning his film career at the famed production house Nikkatsu in the 1950s, Suzuki turned out over forty features during his decade-plus tenure with the studio — an incredibly prolific track record that was far from a rare instance at that time and place. Filmmaking at Nikkatsu was an assembly-line affair, with the prime jobs going to those directors who could churn out product on time, on budget, and within the parameters set out by the studio heads. As Suzuki grew bored with those parameters, his work took a turn for the weird, revelling in theatricality, self-conscious artifice, outrageous bursts of colour, and bizarre characterizations.

Putting Suzuki on notice to behave himself, the studio sought to rein him in by slashing his budgets and, after the pop-art opus Tokyo Drifter, forcing him to shoot in black and white. When Suzuki responded to these strictures by turning in the delirious hitman thriller Branded to Kill, he was summarily dismissed from Nikkatsu, sparking a legal battle that led to the director being effectively blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for a solid decade.

While Drifter and Branded have since been rightfully reclaimed as gonzo masterpieces, they are only the entry points to the life and career of one of cinema's greatest mavericks. From his earlier, equally remarkable Nikkatsu work, to his ambitious independent films in the 1980s, to his late-career renaissance with Pistol Opera and Princess Raccoon, Suzuki has proven himself to be an unstoppable creative force. The film world has never seen anyone like him and, with the now 85-year-old master in failing health, it likely never will again.

Todd Brown

This travelling retrospective is programmed by Tom Vick, Curator of Film, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and co-organized with the Japan Foundation.

Freer and Sackler Galleries
Smithsonian Institution
Japan Foundation
Twitch
Story of a Prostitute

Story of a Prostitute

Sent to the front as a "comfort woman" during the Sino-Japanese War, a young woman is brutalized by a vicious lieutenant who wants her as his personal property, even as she finds herself falling in love with the officer's gentle young assistant.
Smashing the O-Line

Smashing the O-Line

An ambitious and amoral reporter tries to get a scoop on a drug-smuggling ring in this crackling early Suzuki thriller.
Kanto Wanderer

Kanto Wanderer

Nikkatsu superstar Akira Kobayashi plays a fearsome yakuza bodyguard torn between defending his boss against a rival gang leader and his obsession with a femme fatale who reappears from his past.
Youth of the Beast

Youth of the Beast

Nikkatsu superstar Joe Shishido rampages through Suzuki's gonzo yakuza thriller as a disgraced ex-cop pitting two yakuza gangs against each other to avenge the death of a fellow officer.
Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh

Part social-realist drama, part sadomasochistic trash opera, Gate of Flesh paints a dog-eat-dog portrait of postwar Tokyo with its tale of a gang of tough prostitutes working out of a bombed-out building.
Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter

Seijun Suzuki's gloriously artificial mash-up of Godard, Fuller, Fellini, James Bond and MGM musicals is an explosive, candy-coloured Pop Art freak-out.
Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill

Bizarre, perverse and delightfully nonsensical, Seijun Suzuki's delirious deconstruction of the gangster genre has been cited as an influence by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-wook and John Woo.
Zigeunerweisen

Zigeunerweisen

Suzuki's bizarre, metaphysical ghost story was named the best film of the 1980s in a poll of Japanese film critics.
Kagero-za

Kagero-za

Reality, fantasy, life and afterlife blend together in Suzuki's hallucinatory adaptation of a work by the Taisho-era writer Kyoka Izumi.
Yumeji

Yumeji

Suzuki spins a fantastical tale from the life of famed bohemian artist Takehisa Yumeji.
Pistol Opera

Pistol Opera

Suzuki's decades-later follow-up to Branded to Kill is an eye-popping action extravaganza which is less a sequel than a compact retrospective of Suzuki's style and themes.
Princess Raccoon

Princess Raccoon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi stars in Suzuki's latest (and likely last) film, a fantasy musical that finds the Japanese maverick at his most kindhearted and whimsical.