Utter the words Roaring Twenties to an American and you bring images to mind: flappers on the dance floor; teacups of bathtub gin; gangsters and gun molls. Utter the word Taishō era (1912-1926) to someone familiar with Japan and you evoke a similar tenor: a society discovering jazz and female liberation, Surrealism and anarchism. Along with such brazen, life-affirming flavors came the aesthetic of ero-guro ("erotic-grotesque"), darkness and obsession of the sort Edogawa Rampo transformed into his detective, mystery, and horror fiction.
Any time period with style to burn makes a natural subject for the movies, and Seijun Suzuki's Taishō Trilogy — Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991) — papers every scene with Tashō style, sensuality, and attitude. Even if the movies were nothing more than period-piece fashion plates, they'd still be among the most visually creative Japanese films ever made. But Suzuki wanted to aim higher — to to use the aesthetic of the time as a stage, on which he placed A-list actors and executed surreal dramas where Japan's feudal and rural past, urban and sophisticated present, and technologized and militarized futures all came into collision.
The title of the first film in the trilogy (it translates as "Gypsy Airs") comes from Pablo de Sarasate's 1878 piece for violin, piano, and orchestra, heard in the opening moments of the film from a 78 RPM record crackling through the tin trumpet of a gramophone. It is one of the many common links between two men who would otherwise hardly share the same train compartment, but who eventually trade women, desires, and maybe even their lives and deaths.
The two men couldn't be more unalike. One is Aochi (Toshiya Fujita, best known for his turn in the Lady Snowblood movies), a mild-mannered, proper, taciturn professor of German. German things are something of a cultural shorthand in Japanese for all that is scientific and "modern", and so Aochi is a top-to-toe embodiment of all that Japan imagined itself becoming as a modern nation.
The other is Nakasogo (the legendary Yoshio Harada, who appears in all three Taishō films in different roles). Nakasogo was once a colleague of Aochi's, but he took to the road, grew out his beard, and swapped suit and cravat (assuming he ever had them) for kimono and clogs. They meet quite by accident after years of separation, when Aochi is on vacation in a little seaside village and a mob of local fishermen show up baying for Nakasogo's head. Word has it he seduced and murdered the wife of one of the locals, but Aochi thinks of friendship first, scandal second, and intervenes to keep Nakasogo out of the hands of the police.
They spend time together, drinking with a local geisha, Koine (Naoko Otani), whom they seem to be both contending for. This despite Aochi being married to the modish Shuko (Michiyo Ōkusu), but something about Koine captures their attention. Maybe it's because she's in mourning, and they are both motivated to cheer her up or distract her; maybe it's because the two men are inspired, however unawares, to compete over her.
Months go by. Aochi learns Nakasogo has, in defiance of most every impulse he would seem to have, settled down and married. The wife's name is Sono, but she is the spitting image of Koine. This mere fact alone is enough to make Aochi fascinated with her, but it also helps (if "helps" is the word) that Shuko is a woman of modern appetites that someone as buttoned-down as Aochi can never properly satisfy. For all of his embodiment of modernism, Aochi is a man of old-fashioned taste in women, and the yamato nadeshiko Sono draws him in like a hooked fish.
Aochi's drawn all the closer to Sono when Nakasogo ups and splits on his own right before his child is born. Now Aochi is in the awkward position of substituting for his missing friend. And when Nakasogo shows up again, it's to seduce Shuko, not so much in the sense that turnabout is fair play but in that their appetites have always seemed complementary anyway. The old and the new need each other, even if they don't want to admit it — something brought home all the more by the movie's moody, uneasy conclusion, where Aochi is presented with the unnerving possibility that either his friend's spirit has come back to haunt him, or that he has already joined Nakasogo among the dead.
What's worth drawing the most attention to is not just the way the two men, and their women, embody different sensibilities of manhood and womanhood from the period. It's the style Suzuki brings to this film and the rest of the trilogy as well — a style so mannered, so stylized, that it becomes inseparable from the story being told. The way the camera frames objects, the way characters and props are lined up and played off, the way apparently random cutaways and digressions turn out to have central importance later on, all borrow as aggressively from theater as they do Suzuki's own earlier showcases for mannered cinematic style (Branded To Kill, Tokyo Drifter). And the theater in question isn't just kabuki, either — the easy reference for a movie like this — but also self-conscious Western stage works like Samuel Beckett's, where the fourth wall tumbles and where the meanings of things take on lives of their own.
If Zigeunerweisen was a 101-level course of Suzuki, Kagero-za ("Heat-Haze Theater") is a 201. For all its surreal flair, Zigeunerweisen's story is relatively straightforward; Kagero-za dives face-first into theater of ... I was going to say absurd, but maybe delirious would be the better term. Emphasis on the word "theater", too.
Like Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za is about two men in contention over two different women. Playwright Matsuzaki (Yūsaku Matsuda, here playing drastically against his usual tough-guy type) has a series of run-ins with an odd woman named Shinako (again, Michiyo Ōkusu, as demure here as she was flamboyantly carnal in Zigeunerweisen). She claims she wants someone to walk her to the hospital where she can meet a sick friend. Matsuzaki comes to believe she may be the spirit of the dead wife of his literary patron, Tamawaki (Katsuo Nakamura), a smirking, shotgun-toting prig who provides a blunt contrast to Matsuzaki's dapper yet introverted manner. Surely a lady this fine deserves someone better, and so Matsuzaki beds her down the ghost (?) in a scene that manages to be as gloriously absurd as it is tremendously erotic.
Matsuzaki soon finds himself in a whirlpool of erotic intrigue. As it turns out, Tamawaki had a previous wife — a blond, blue-eyed woman ("Irene"), whom he married while in Germany and then he outfitted with a black wig and contact lenses, the better to remodel her into his image of a traditional Japanese woman ("Ine"). She is the one who died — after all, there was a funeral, wasn't there? — but her specter still hangs over both Tamawaki and Shinako, inspiring jealousy on the other woman's part. Then Matsuzaki is lured out to Kanazawa via a letter in Shinako's hand, an invitation to a lover's suicide, as Tamawaki drops ominous hints that he is engineering a fatal encounter between his current wife and his hapless patron as a way to give them both what they think they want. And while Matsuzaki may deny outwardly he wants to die for a woman he barely knows, she apparently has other ideas — as does Ine, who may not be dead after all.
Anyone familiar with Japanese ghost stories will recognize some of the individual ingredients — e.g., the way Ine's true nature is revealed under the light of the full moon. But the idea isn't so much to retell or even pay homage to ghost stories. It's to create something new and electrically unfamiliar out of existing pieces that are likely to be shopworn for its original audience, to transmute a "ghost story of lovers" into a surreal circus of unquenchable desire. That tends to be the emotion underpinning such stories, anyway; Suzuki has just found a whole new way to mount and stage all of it. And again, "stage" is a term to be taken literally here, as the last stretch of the film puts all of Matsuzaki's conflicting impulses on a stage in front of him, larger than life and twice as garish.
Matsuzaki is positively bourgeois in his behavior and demeanor. Yumeji gives us a character a good deal closer to the common bohemian conception of the artist from that time: the titular Yumeji Takehisa, painter of erotica, poet, free-lover, and roustabout. As with the characters in Kagero-za and Zigeunerweisen, Yumeji's carnal thirsts draw him into a love triangle with supernatural over- and under-tones, but the whole story is played less for a philosophy of love or life than it is as a series of opportunities for Suzuki to play cinematic merry prankster with our senses and sensibilities.
The setup is conventional enough, even if Suzuki films it in what by then (1991) had become a trademark fractured style. Yumeji (former pop heartthrob Kenji Sawada) is engaged to Hikono, a delicate, tubercular woman of high standing — he's actually planning to elope with her — but that doesn't stop him from engaging in wild flings with his models. One day, while stopping off at an inn in the countryside, he hears tell of a murder: A forest-dwelling, sickle-wielding bandit, "Onimatsu", murdered a certain Wakiya, leaving the man's wife Tomoyo to search endlessly for her husband's body in the nearby lake.
Yumeji becomes fascinated with Tomoyo as a potential model, and she in turn uses her allure — and some snide comments about Yumeji's "lifeless" and "vulgar" art — to bind her to him. It doesn't help that Yumeji tangled with Wakiya (Yoshio Harada once again) before — fighting a duel with him and only surviving because Wakiya spared him, the better to prolong his humiliation. It definitely doesn't help when Wakiya, very much alive, comes back into the picture,
Like Matsuzaki before him, Yumeji finds himself at the nexus of multiple competing desires. The anarchist and anti-authoritarian in him admires Onimatsu for giving the pigs a hard time (even if he, too, had and still has eyes for Tomoyo); the artist in him can't tear himself away from Tomoyo; and the womanizer in him still wants to elope with his tubercular beauty. There's not enough room in his life for all of these impulses to get equal time, but maybe that's the point of being larger than life: it isn't about whether you succeed in doing justice to all of those things, but having the appetite to try anyway.
The same goes, as you might image, for the film itself. Suzuki's interest in this material isn't rooted in how it can be made into compelling drama, or even heated melodrama. It's in how the elements can be deployed like chess pieces on the board of his overall vision. When he wants to depict the surface of a lake enslickened with the blood of slaughtered cows, he slathers stripes of pink paint on a piece of glass and puts it between the camera and the water. It's not just theatrical; it's playful, childlike. Whatever (melo)drama boils up out of the material is almost incidental. But (melo)drama there is all the same, as Wakiya comes back from the dead to demand satisfaction, Hikono finds herself the object of Wakiya's fascination as well, Yumeji gains rivals in art as well as love, and Onimatsu is determined to finish what he started.
The literary connection(s)
Suzuki did more than just draw on the Taishō period's style and sensibilities for his films. The first two also tapped directly into literary works from the period for their source material. Zigeunerweisen is a loose adaptation of the works of Uchida Hyakken, (1889-1971), although it'll be hard for English-speaking audiences to appreciate the way his work has been transmogrified here. Only one volume of his work is available in English, Realm Of The Dead (see sidebar), and it does not contain the key inspiration for the film, the story "Disk Of Sarasate". But the book does contain at least one other story — "Fireworks" — that was clearly mined for Zigeunerweisen by Suzuki and prolific screenwriter Yōzō Tanaka (who also wrote the flabbergasting live-action movie version of Jirō Akagawa's comic novel Sailor Suit And Machine Gun). And even from that small piece, it isn't hard to see how Hyakken's style lends itself to being translated into Suzuki's dizzied, deliberately disjointed filmmaking, as his works read like fragments of dream transcripts scribbled down immediately upon awakening.
For Kagero-za, Suzuki and Tanaka turned to another Japanese author of renown, Kyōka Izumi, perhaps best known to some reading this as the inspiration for one of the key characters in Bungo Stray Dogs. The real-life Izumi wrote a mixture of surrealism and Gothic fantasy, and his work inspired dozens of other film adaptations (e.g., Shūji Terayama's Kusa-meikyū ["Grass Labyrinth"]). And again, while Kagero-za itself is not available in English, two volumes of Izumi's short stories are (see sidebar), and they too make it clear how Izumi's dreamy subject matter and occasional metafictional flourishes transpose readily to Suzuki's filmmaking style. With Yumeji, Suzuki wasn't adapting any work in particular, but instead just engaging in a freeform fantasy about the man's life and work, in something of the the same manner as Bob Fosse's All That Jazz.
After Branded To Kill unfairly branded Suzuki as box-office poison, he did not make another film for a decade, until A Tale Of Sorrow And Sadness (also starring Harada) in 1977. That film also flopped, but in its wake Suzuki hooked up with theatrical producer Genjiro Arato to independently finance and release Zigeunerweisen, and eventually the other two Taishō films as well. With no distributors willing to take on Zigeunerweisen, Arato turned to what could be described as guerrilla marketing by way of his company Cinema Placet. This was a kind of traveling roadshow exhibition, where the movie was screened inside an inflatable tent that toured from city to city. The film was a hit in that format, so much so that it was snapped up for general release. From there it went on to win multiple Japan Academy and Kinema Junpo awards, and ended up being routinely cited by critics as one of the best Japanese films of the decade. After that, nobody complained about Suzuki's films (as a Nikkatsu exec had put it) making neither money nor sense.
The way a movie is packaged and presented is itself a signal as to what audience it is for. Originally, I didn't see the Trilogy appealing to anyone other than a tiny, self-selecting audience — not in 1981, and not really in 1991 either. But it's 2017, and we have over the last forty years become far more accepting of surrealism, nonlinear storytelling, symbolism, and highly personal flights of fantasy in popular culture. Consider how David Lynch, by way of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks (both original and new), made nightmare logic something that could be its own reason to exist, and not just as a fancier way to express a conventional plotline. The Taishō films, and all of Suzuki's other works in their mold, may be even further out on the fringes of such things, but isn't the whole point of having an envelope to push it?