• Seijun Suzuki's The Taisho Trilogy



    Seijun Suzuki's The Taisho Trilogy
    Released by: Arrow Academy
    Released on: August 8th, 2017.
    Director: Seijun Suzuki
    Cast: Yoshio Harada, Toshiya Fujita, Yoshio Harada, Naoko Otani, Yusaku Matsuda, Kenji Sawada
    Year: 1980/1981/1991
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    The Movies:

    Over a decade after storied Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki was fired from Nikkatsu, he made an interesting comeback with the three films that comprise his Taisho Trilogy, previously released domestically on DVD via Kino and now making their Blu-ray debut in a boxed set from Arrow Academy.

    Zigeunerweisen:

    Filmed without the help of a major studio like in 1980, Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen is pretty far removed from his better known pop-surrealist Yakuza films like Branded To Kill or his more exploitative art-house film, Story Of A Prostitute. While the visuals are still fantastic things are a little more reeled in. On top of that, there isn't a whore or a gangster in sight for the duration of the movie's two hour plus running time.

    The basic premise is simple, though it gets a little more complicated through its execution. Taking place in the 1920s (a rather tumultuous time in Japanese history where western influences and modernization were finding themselves at odds with more traditional values before things became militant before the onset of the Second World War), we meet a university professor named Aochi (Toshiya Fujita of the second Lady Snowblood film, Lovesong Of Vengeance) who teaches German for a living. With school out and the summer setting in, he opts to head off to a small town on the coast for a nice vacation. When he arrives there he meets a man from his past named Nagasako who used to go to school with. Nagasako (Yoshio Harada Rokuro Michiziki's Onibi: The Fire Within) is a rather unseemly sort and it's been alluded to that he might in fact be a murderer. As such, Aochi approaches him with some hesitation.

    Before long, after they've caught up on old times and developed an unusual friendship, the two men meet a beautiful geisha girl named Koine (Naoko Otani, who has a supporting role in Zatoichi At Large) and both fall madly in love with her. In an unexpected turn of events, Nagasako ends up marrying a woman who looks very much like the shared object of their affection, a woman named Sono (Naoko Otani again). However, this doesn't last long and soon enough the two men become obsessed with Koine to the point where it's obviously going to get really weird. To make matters worse, there's something sinister in the air and someone has murder on his mind…

    At times the Nagasako character's path in the film seems to almost mirror Mifune's character in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon in that his downward spiral is quite manic and takes some unexpected turns. Having said that, Zigeunerweisen is very much a Suzuki film through and through and it’s never even close to a feeling like a Kurosawa knock-off. While it lacks the underworld characters and themes that pepper so many of his movies, there are still some amazing compositions lurking around in the movie and the few times where plot angles come at you out of left field keep us firmly entrenched in Suzuki's world from start to finish.

    Visually the movie looks very much like a play in that the cinematography, while elegant and at times quite interesting, is for the most part quite straightforward even if it is full of the little touches of artistic flair that the director is known for. The narrative is also quite straightforward here, and while the last half hour or so takes a rather drastic turn into some very macabre territory, for the most part the film centers around the relationship between the main characters in the film and how their obsessive behavior ultimately changes it for the worse. The latter half of the film, with its supernatural elements, almost feels like it has been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe or his Japanese equivalent, Edogawa Rampo This manifests with the introduction of the spirit world into the tangible world where the bulk of the film plays out. It's an interesting switch, and one that thankfully works really well due to the buildup that Suzuki lays out before pulling that rug out from underneath us. While one can't really call Zigeunerweisen a horror movie in the traditional sense, the film’s more macabre and unusual elements play a big part in why the movie is as effective as it is. Discounting the genre elements of the film would be a disservice to its excellent conclusion.

    Kagero-za:

    The late Yusaku Matsuda (who has shown up alongside Sonny Chiba in Resurrection Of The Golden Wolf and Black Rain) is a playwright named Shungo Matsuzaki. He is well looked after by a wealthy patron of the arts who sponsors his writing and allows him to make a living at his craft. One day, while out for a walk, he is approached by an unusual, albeit, very beautiful woman who asks of him the strange request that he accompany her on her trip to the hospital. She would like to visit a terminally ill friend of hers who isn't long for this world. The reason that she doesn't want to go to the hospital on her own is that she's scared of a strange older woman who hangs out there and sells 'Chinese lantern flowers.' Why would she be frightened of an old woman who sells flowers? Well, the local folklore implies that these plants are actually the harvested souls of Japanese women. As such, she doesn't really want anything to do with the lady.

    Matsuzaki is a little baffled by the woman and for this reason he politely declines her request. Soon after he's done that his mind starts to wander and he begins to dwell on her more and more to the point where his thoughts border on the obsessive. His thoughts become quite carnal in nature and he decides that he's going to go out and find her again. He wants to live out the fantasies he's conjured up between the two of them in his mind. To do this he will have to follow a trail of strange, cryptic messages that she's left for him that will take him across the country from Tokyo to Kanazawa where their reunion will be anything but joyful.

    In order to enjoy Kagero-Za, you've got to be willing to forget about the rules of logic and narrative storytelling, as they don't apply to this film. More of a strange dream captured on film than a traditional story, the movie succeeds as a series of images and strange set pieces loosely connected by a sort of gothic soap opera ghost story that ties it all together. There's very definitely a point to all of this, but getting to it requires some flexibility on the part of the viewer as well as some interpretive skills. Kagero-Za is highbrow, it's pretentious, it's difficult, it's challenging, and it's very beautiful. Plenty of jump cutting and characters popping in and out of the frame at various intervals make it a bizarre looking film with a truly odd sense of flow (or lack thereof) but the visuals are so interesting and so pretty in spots that you can't help but get sucked in by the film in spite of its convoluted tactics.

    Those familiar with some of Seijun Suzuki's work know to expect the unexpected when it comes to appreciating his filmography. That rule holds very true here with Kagero-Za. Though we're treated to a lot of the bright color schemes and bold, striking compositions that he's known for we also delve into some moments of tragic romance coupled with flat out lust, passion and wanton desire incarnate. The film is far more erotically charged than most of his work, at least that which has been made available in the west, and the results are as interesting as they are unusual. The period dress (the film takes place in the year 1926) and various locations used throughout the production give us a wide array of interesting things to look at. Yusaku Matsuda's performance does a fine job of making us care about his character even while we question the sincerity and real meaning behind his motives for wanting to track this strange woman down in the first place. She's obviously very beautiful and you can't blame him for wanting to be with her in the way he imagines, but the fact that he doesn't even know her and that she has such a strong hold on him regardless is really what's at the core of the film. Though Suzuki doesn't really try to explain his lead’s obsession with her, he does demonstrate the depths to which he will go to complete his quest and make his dream a reality.

    Yumeji:

    Yumeji, the third and final film in the trilogy, shot in 1991, effectively combines the more mysterious elements that dominated the first film with the more erotic elements of the second film and blends them together into a fascinating mish-mash of sexy supernatural weirdness. This time it's loosely based on a real life subject, interestingly enough.

    Yumeji Takehisa (played here by former rock star Kenji Sawada of Shinya Tsukomoto's bizarre monster movie, Hiruko The Goblin and later of Suzuki's own Pistol Opera) is, like the characters in the two films in the trilogy that came before this one, an obsessive type. His two main focuses in life are finding the very model of perfect beauty and worrying about/trying to prevent his own death. Aside from that, he spends a lot of time painting and writing poetry but also manages to take the time to bed a woman or two when the opportunity presents itself. Yumeji never seems to be able to get past physical infatuation with the fairer sex, however. He has no problem getting women in bed but getting past anything other than casual encounters proves to be tough for him. Likewise, he's constantly plagued by a few annoying characters from his past who he's always able to outwit but never able to completely get rid of.

    In the opening scenes of the film we follow Yumeji on a trip to Kanazawa where he plans to have a romantic rendezvous with his current lady-friend, Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki of the Bee-Bop Highschool movies). When he arrives at his destination his baser instincts kick in and rather than sit around and wait for Hikono to show up he is soon distracted by a lovely widow named Tokoyo Wakiya (Tomoko Mariya). Her husband, Wakiya (Yoshio Harada of Ronin-Gai), was recently killed by Onimatsu (Kazuhiko Hasegawa), an exceptionally jealous and rather dangerous fellow.

    As Yumeji and Tokoyo start to hit it off, as luck would have it, Wakiya comes back from the dead and is none too happy at all to find his once beloved wife romping about with this painter. To make matters even more complicated for him, Onimatsu still pines for Tokoyo's love and if he's killed once, what's to stop him from doing it again? There's also the matter of all the strange ghosts, spirits and specters in the area to make the situation even less enjoyable for our lead, but he's bound and determined to make Tokoyo his own and find the love he so desperately wants in her arms.

    At times both bizarre and undeniably romantic, Yumeji probably isn't all that accurate a representation of the life and times of Yumeji Takehisa, who lived from 1884 until his death in 1934, but it certainly is an entertaining take on his story. As can be expected from Suzuki's films, Yumeji boasts a fantastic color pallet, plenty of interesting and unusual camera work and some off the wall editing techniques that give the movie a very distinct look and feel. In terms of the narrative it shouldn't surprise anyone to find that this one jumps around a little bit from time to time but if you pay attention it isn't the least bit difficult to follow despite the strange inclusion of supernatural elements in the last half of the movie. As absurd as some of the ideas put forth in this film might seem, Suzuki manages to make it work and play it completely straight, a testament to his skill as a filmmaker.

    Kenji Sawada is quite good in the lead and while we're not always sympathetic to his cause based on some of his actions and because of the way he interacts with some of the women in his life (he is, in short, a bit of a womanizer) he's an intriguing man. This means we want to know how it all works out for him. Seeing him cast opposite a completely charming and rather mysterious Tomoko Mariya makes for an interesting contrast in characters. Their doomed romance becomes more engrossing because of this.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    All three films are presented on Blu-ray in 1.33.1 fullframe transfers in AVC encoded 1080p high definition, each on their own 50GB disc. These transfers seem pretty true to source. Colors are well reproduced if occasionally just a tad flat. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and the films’ natural grain structure seems to be wholly intact. The transfers are generally nice and clean, showing no real print damage outside of a tiny white speck here and there, while black levels are pretty solid. Each movie is provided a strong bit rate ensuring the that transfers are free of any obvious compression artifacts – all in all, the movies look pretty good here.

    The Japanese language LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks are also of nice quality. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. No issues here. The quality of the audio is just fine. Levels are nicely balanced, the scores used throughout the three films sounds really solid and there are no noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion worth complaining about.

    Each of the three films in the set includes a new introduction by critic Tony Rayns in which he sets up what we’re about to see and provides some welcome context. These range from thirteen minutes in length to twenty-four minutes in length and they’re quite interesting. You’ll definitely glean some important contextual information from these intros if you take the time to watch them before the features play out.

    Rayns also appears on disc one in a featurette called Tony Rayns On The Taisho Trilogy. In this ten minute video essay he speaks about where these three films fit in the director’s filmography, how he left Nikkatsu under unusual circumstances and then wound up going independent and the court case that ensued. He then talks about his TV work and then the significance of the Taisho films, their significance in Japanese culture and the significance of their name, the effect of politics on the work, how the films are set in the era in which the director was born and the defining characteristics of both the movies and the time in which they are set.

    Disc two contains an interview with Suzuki himself in which the director talks about the making of the three films in the Taisho Trilogy. He's always an interesting character to listen to and here he discusses some of the themes that can be found in the movies, as well as some of the technical merits of the films and how he came to make these three movies in the first place. This is, not surprisingly, in Japanese with English subtitles.

    Disc three holds a making of Yumeji featurette that runs just over ten minutes. This was clearly shot on a camcorder while the shoot was in progress, but it gives us a look at what it was like on set and also provides some brief talking head style interviews with a few of the cast members involved in the production. Suzuki himself shows up a few times here, giving direction of course but also blocking scenes and just generally interacting with his cast on a casual, friendly level.

    Theatrical trailers for each film in the set are included on each of their respective discs.

    The Final Word:

    The Arrow Academy Blu-ray release of Seijun Suzuki's The Taisho Trilogy is a solid release of three genuinely great movies. Highly recommended!
    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!









































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