Then an invitation. A preview of a new film by a veteran director who has not made a film for many years. Between 1956 and 1967 Seijun Suzuki, who had started his career at Shochiku, made at least 43 films for the Nikkatsu studio. Many have still not been outside Japan. But this was something new and different
“The company made a few samurai films and historical dramas but by 1960 had decided to devote its resources to the production of urban youth dramas, comedy, action and gangster films. From the late 1950s to 1971 they were renowned for their big budget action movies designed for the youth market. They employed such stars as Yujiro Ishihara, Akira Kobayashi, Joe Shishido, Tetsuya Watari, Ruriko Asaoka, Chieko Matsubara and, later, Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji. Director Shōhei Imamura began his career there and between 1958 and 1966 made for them such notable films as Pigs and Battleships (1961), The Insect Woman (1963) and The Pornographers (1966).”
I regret to say I knew none of this at the time when the preview of Ziegeunerwiesen (Japan, 1980) was offered. Then again it’s not as if Suzuki was on the tip of everyone’s lips. Noel Burch, prior to Ziegeunerweisen appearing, in his “To the Distant Observer” passes him by with the remark “Several film-makers who work in a manner related to Oshima (Suzuki Seijun in particular) function entirely within the codes of mass-audience cinema.” Right, up to that point, though later Burch mentions “a great many directors…(who) have chosen, for a variety of personal motives, who have chosen to ‘subvert’ the popular genres from within the framework of the major companies, particularly Nikkatsu and Toei…”.
I was told that “Donald will be there” and just before it started an elegant older man was introduced to me as Donald Richie and we sat together and watched the movie. Whether I was overcome by sleep or incomprehension or both I don’t recall. Probably both. Whatever, at the end I attempted to engage Donald in a conversation about what the film meant but was met only with a gnomic judgement. It was, he said, a throwback to a European art movement from the early part of the century. I can’t remember what term he used but it wasn’t surrealism or Dada. Knowledge of this unlocked the film’s meaning. With that Donald suggested lunch and we went off to a nearby Department store and the restaurant on the top floor. “There is only one dish on the menu worth ordering and we’ll both have it.” It was a dry red beef curry and it was indeed delicious. (It was similarly delicious when Karen and I returned to Tokyo together in 1982 and I hunted the restaurant down again. But I digress…)
So, out of the blue, The Japanese Film Festival’s classic selection this year is a selection of Seijun Suzuki’s best known films. Seven of them are from his late Nikkatsu years when Suzuki, tiring of the mediocre gangster and costume dramas he was allocated started to fool around with the genres and almost by inadvertence produced a series of Pop Art artefacts that remain unique in Japanese cinema and have been to Australia before at both BIFF (curated by Tony Rayns) and MIFF (curated by Phillip Brophy).
But what was the befuddlement. The film now seems quite straightforward in its narrative and its story of two men and three women. Tadao Sato in his invaluable “Currents in Japanese Cinema” says the film: “…begins with a recording of violinist Pablo de Sarasate playing his own composition (“The Gypsy Melody” of the title) and then delves into the bizarre lives of five men and women whose existence takes on a ghost-like quality. As the director himself says, “It is a film where living people are actually dead and the dead are actually alive.” Hmmm. I guess directors can say what they like. Never trust the teller only the tale.
Whatever, the film’s reputation finally got home to me, enthralled for the most part at the subtle, often completely unexpected changes between those five men and women in their years long dance of life and death.