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DVD SAVANT

Underworld Beauty


Underworld Beauty
Home Vision Entertainment
1958 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 87 min. / Ankokugai no Bijo / Street Date January 20, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Michitaro Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Yusuke Ashida, Toru Abe, Hideaki Nitani
Cinematography Toshitaro Nakao
Original Music Naozumi Yamamoto
Written by Susumu Saji
Produced by Takashi Nishihara
Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Underworld Beauty starts with a broad title preceding the main title, that has a "7" in it. From information in this disc's insert notes, it must mean "Seijun Suzuki's Seventh", a herald that lets us know how Japanese genre competition worked back in 1958.  2

Photographed in crisp B&W and Suzuki's first film in CinemaScope, Underworld Beauty is a pretension-free crime drama with nicely defined characters and a fast-moving series of surprising genre twists, as gangsters, a corrupt artist, a playgirl and a dedicated Yakuza hero vie for possession of a cache of perfect diamonds.

Synopsis:

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) is released from prison. True to his code, he's kept mum about his accomplices, and now asks his gang boss for permission to sell three diamonds he's hidden, the proceeds to go to a friend who became a cripple in the botched robbery. The gangsters consent to the arrangement, but have plans to doublecross Miyamoto. Meanwhile, The cripple's sister Akika (Mari Siraki) is having an affair with a sculptor, who gets wind of the diamonds as well. In the aftermath of a failed transaction, the diamonds are still unaccounted for, Akika blames Miyamoto, and neither suspect that the sculptor is working with the treacherous gangsters.

As American as a thriller by Phil Karlson or Sam Fuller, Underworld Beauty presents us with straightforward situations and characters easily understood by anyone familiar with gangster conventions. Unlike his later Yakuza pictures that twisted the rules (already represented by Home Vision's Kanto Wanderer), or his final, weirded-out psychedelic shows, like Branded to Kill, Underworld Beauty is genre filmmaking at its leanest. The hero is the straight-talking silent type, wearing a simple black shirt and leather jacket instead of the snappy suits of the other killers. Much of the screen time is spent with the sensation-seeking dropout heroine. She models nude, rocks out in some uninhibited nightclubs and must slowly find out for herself who is a loyal friend and who is not.

(spoiler)

Some conventions hold like bedrock: The Hero leaves prison in the beginning, and is on his way back at the end, but this time with the solid friendship of the honorable police detective. The untrustworthy over-boss has a retinue of thugs, who use knives, guns, and a machine gun. 1

Still content to play creative games with standard elements, Suzuki does great visual work with the story twists: Miyamoto hanging onto a ladder in the sewer, waiting in a cone of light; Akika flaunting herself at her artist employer to no avail. Clothing manniquins are used more creatively than Kubrick did in Killer's Kiss, and the sculptor's involvement with the bad guys is cleverly established - as is his unexpected handiwork with a knife to solve a certain anatomical problem with a corpse.

All of this takes place in deceptively real-looking city streets. The photography doesn't force a stylized pattern onto the already-dramatic night scenes. Best of all is Naozumi Yamamoto's eccentric music, which ranges from seductive Latin beats to weird dissonant reverb and echo effects, all sounding far too advanced for 1958. Japanese genre filmmaking is full of artistic surprises.

Susumu Saji's lean script gives us a laconic hero, an engagingly wanton heroine and satisfying visual touches. As if looking forward to Suzuki's later, more abstract thrillers, there's a knife embedded in a staircase handrail throughout the final bathhouse shootout - it never figures into the fight except as a distraction! And after all kinds of talk about diamonds, Akika makes an escape through a building's coal chute, a living diamond emerging from a carbon mine. It's too poetic to be pretentious.


Home Vision's DVD of Underworld Beauty is a good transfer of this rare (to us, at any rate) and earliest-yet Seijun Suzuki film. Two years ago Fantoma introduced us to the wild world of director Yasuzo Masumura (Blind Beast, Giants and Toys, Manji) and now we're seeing another Japanese director besting American films at their own game. This new series is a co-effort from HVe and The American Cinematheque.

The disc transfer is the tiniest bit soft, but that is absolutely no distraction. The audio tracks present the ear-opening score in robust clarity. The only extra this time around is the Suzuki filmography we've seen before - it would have been nice to see what a 1958 Japanese crime trailer looked like. Going into this film, I was reminded by the similarity of the title to another 1958 Japanese film, Bijo to Ekitainingen. It translates roughly to Beauty and the Water Monsters and was a strange blending of the gangster and science fiction genres. We knew it here as The H-Man!

Tatsu Aoki's liner notes sketch the genesis of the Yakuza genre, barely touching on the movie we're watching, so we have to guess at which actors played which roles in the film. Aoki mentions one bizarre Yakuza hybrid subgenre where neighborhood criminals all dress in cowboy outfits and behave like characters in American Westerns. I saw part of a film like this on Honolulu television around 1960, with Japanese in ten-gallon hats walking toward six-gun showdowns in normal Japanese streets! Now it finally makes sense - it wasn't a dream after all.

The sexy cover illustration that looks like an ad for Girls 'n Guns, only 40 years too soon, is just a racy publicity photo ... there's no corresponding scene in the film.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Underworld Beauty rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Seijun Suzuki filmography
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 9, 2004


Footnotes:

1. The machine gun is a pretty foolish-looking prop. Presumably the use of firearms in Japanese films is a much stricter situation than in the U.S.A., and few were in private hands, for any purpose. Gun Control, see. It's a concept. A submachine gun was so alien to the culture, that one had to be invented, and it looks like a toy. If only automatic rifles were equally unfamiliar here ...
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2. Wrong! Stuart Galbraith IV writes me from Tokyo to tell me that the "7" just happens to be Japanese writing for something else. That's what I get for trying to be a know it all! Thanks, Stuart ...
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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