Monday, September 03, 2018

Seijun Suzuki's Early Years: The Crime and Action Movies, Part 1

In addition to their five-film set of early Seijun Suzuki movies dealing with the travails of youth, Arrow Video have also released a five-film four-disc (DVD and Blu-Ray) set of his early films in the genre of “crime and action”.  As with the previous set, these B films are not available on DVD or Blu-Ray in Japan but you can get them here in the US. 

The two films on this disc are very similar.  They’re both gritty crime dramas set in a morally corrupt post-war Japan.  The lead protagonist in each film is a journalist, both times played by the same actor, Hiroyuki Nagato.  They were made one right after the other.  And they both share the same world-view of fear, paranoia and disillusionment.  They ooze cynicism.  While not overtly political, both films are a sign of the anger and discontent present in Japan at the time.  In January of 1960, over popular opposition, the Japanese parliament renewed the Japan-US Security Treaty.  US occupation had officially ended ten years earlier but the treaty allowed the US to expand its military presence in Japan.  It was very unpopular.  There were massive student demonstrations against it, one of which resulted in the death of one of the student protesters.  The Prime Minister was forced to resign soon after.  It was in this milieu that these films were shot and released.

Although neither film deals with these events, both present a Japan threatened by infiltration from foreign sources, a Japan under seige.  Clearly, twenty-five years of war and occupation had taken their toll.  Americans - and English-speakers, in general - are a threat.  Their former enemy China, too, is a threat - especially Hong Kong, from where the heroin at the center of each films’ plot is being sent into Japan. And, of course, none of this could happen without the collusion of corrupt authorities in Japan.  

The Sleeping Beast Within (1960)
When Junpei Ueki (Shunsuke Ashida), a retiring businessman, returns home to Yokohama from a business trip to Hong Kong, his wife and daughter notice a change in his demeanor.  So too does his daughter’s boyfriend, Shôtarô (Hiroyuki Nagato) who just happens to be a reporter.  After Junpei suddenly disappears, the reporter starts to dig around.  He soon uncovers a seedy demimonde of drugs, corruption, and murder (doesn’t one always).

This is a very well-constructed and realistic thriller, it moves along briskly and always hold one’s attention.  It’s finale, involving a propane leak and lighter, is suitably explosive.  I did, though, have one problem with this film and it’s, frankly, the leading man, Hiroyuki Nagato.  He’s not much of an actor.  In fact, I found him to be something of a bore onscreen.  He doesn’t emote much.  And just standing there he has zero appeal.  He also stars in Smashing the 0-Line, where he delivers a similarly lifeless performance.  In fact, of all the main performances in the ten films in this Arrow Video release I found his the weakest. 

Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Shunsuke Ashida, and Hiroyuki Nagato

However, in The Sleeping Beast Within the character of Junpei Ueki, and Shunsuke Ashida’s performance in that role, make this film worth seeing.  Junpei is a normal Japanese salaryman but at the end of his career his company gives him a measly retirement pension and a shove out the door.  They don’t even show up to greet him when he gets off the boat from Hong Kong.  Hurt, broke, and feeling betrayed, he goes into the heroin business.  He breaks bad, in other words.  In fact, he’s sort of like a proto-Walter-White.  On the surface he’s a typical, almost stereotypical, Japanese businessman - dignified, quiet, respectable, sedate (maybe he’s a proto-Gus-Fring?), but underneath the “sleeping beast within”, as he puts it to his daughter, has awakened.  And also like Walter White he will ultimately do the right thing, but at a tremendous personal cost.  Ashida himself is perfect for this role.  Tall, stoic, solid (he played the headmaster of the military academy in The Incorrigible), one of his most intriguing features is a scar running down the right side of his face, hinting to the viewer that there’s a darker and more dangerous side to him than one would at first suspect.  

And, as always, there's Suzuki's acute visual sense.  In the shot above, Junpei's daughter Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is inquiring with an official about her father's disappearance.  The fracturing of her image in the bevelled glass perfectly conveys her concern and anxiety.  Also remarkable are the flashback sequences in the film. Rather than a mere dissolve between shots - the normal way a flashback is handled - Suzuki uses a double exposure instead, so that the narrator of the flashback can remain onscreen to comment on unfolding events.  In the shot below, the call-girl Akemi (Yûko Chishiro) is recounting the night when Junpei (in the left of the shot) met up with the heroin cartel.  She appears both in the center of the shot pouring the drink and in the lower right corner recounting the evening a few days later.  It's a bold and dramatic technique.  

Shunsuke Ashida (far left) and Yûko Chishiro (center and lower right)

Smashing the 0-Line (1960)
Again Hiroyuki Nagato plays a reporter, but this time he’s a bad one.  Katori is a yellow journalist of the worst kind.  He schemes, betrays his sources to the police, sleeps around, colludes with criminals, etc.  Not surprisingly, he is highly successful.  His friend Nishina (Yûji Kodaka) is also a reporter but of the respectable variety, he never seems to get the story.  He's always getting scooped by Katori.  Again the plot involves heroin - this time the efforts by both reporters to uncover the shadowy “zero-line” which is bringing heroin into Japan.  Both men will clash over the course of the film, with Nishina delivering many a monologue about how one day Katori's bad actions will catch up with him.  Katori will be indifferent to him.  The translation of this film's title isn't quite accurate.  There's no "smashing" in the original title, which is Mikkô 0 LineMikkô means "hidden", "secret", or "clandestine" which is much more in tune with this film's paranoia.

Hiroyuki Nagato and Emiko Azuma

A well-made, if slight, movie.  Yûji Kodaka puts in a serviceable performance as the ethical reporter.  And Nagato is typically inexpressive.  His idea of conveying Katori's evil is to make an occasional weak sneer.  The film's most interesting moments come towards the end (spoilers) when both men, hoping to expose the “zero-line”, stow away on a ship going to Hong Kong.  The ship’s crew is depicted by Suzuki as a surreal collection of foreign demons.  They’re dangerous, drugged-up, perverted, heavily-armed, and mostly non-Asian.  It's an intriguing instance of Japanese xenophobia at the time.  The other noteworthy moment is the conclusion itself.  The police raid the ship and arrest some of the top lieutenants of the “zero-line” but Suzuki makes very clear that the actual leaders of the drug cartel have gotten away.  Justice has not been done.  And Katori and Nishina don’t reconcile; the contempt of the former for the later is unabated at film’s end.  In their final confrontation Katori tells Nishina, and effectively us, that despite everything that’s happened nothing has changed or ever will change.  The heroin trade will continue.  And only a fool would think otherwise.  It's harsh, bitter, and unflinching.  Then the two men part.  Perfect.

Yûji Kodaka and Hiroyuki Nagato

No comments: