Kino Video has opted to release famed Japanese director Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy - comprised of three films: Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-Za, and Yumeji - as either individual releases or collected into a boxed set. The only exclusive to the set is the box that the three discs come housed in, otherwise the discs and keepcase packaging are exactly the same as the single disc options.
Filmed without the help of a major studio like Toho of Nikkatsu 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 in that the visuals, while still fantastic, are a little more reeled in and 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 he at one time went 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 and 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), but that 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 but Zigeunerweisen is very much a Suzuki film through and through and isn't even close to a feeling like a Kurosawa knock-off. While it lacks the underworld characteristics 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 four main characters in the film and how obsessive behavior ultimately changes it for the worse. The later half of the film, with its supernatural elements, almost feels like its been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe or his Japanese equivalent, Edogawa Rampo, 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 thanks to the build up 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, those elements play a big part in why the movie is as effective as it is and discounting the genre elements of the film would be a disservice to its excellent conclusion.
The 1.33.1 transfer on this DVD is solid, save for a couple of tiny flaws. The colors in particular look very good here, which is always important when evaluating Suzuki's work, and each hue and tone is as vibrant and bold as the next and sometimes they appear to literally jump off of the screen at you. While there is some very moderate print damage noticeable in a few scenes, the picture has been cleaned up nicely as this is only really apparent if you're looking for it and it serves not to distract but to remind you that you're watching an actual film in the first place. There are no problems at all with mpeg compression artifacts and edge enhancement is never an issue either, though if you're looking for it you will pick up on some line shimmering here and there as well as some softness. Flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural, and the black levels stay strong and consistent.
As is to be expected, Kino Video presents Zigeunerweisen in it's original Japanese language stereo sound mix with subtitles available in English and English only. There's a faint bit of distortion in the high end of the mix but it's really, really minor and not really distracting at all. For a twenty-five year old film, Zigeunerweisen sounds pretty good on this DVD. The levels are well balanced and the background music (some of which is made up of Pablo Sarasat's violin score from which the film takes its title) and sound effects never overshadow the dialogue at all.
If you pick up the boxed set, or more than one of the individual releases of the films, you'll notice some similarity in terms of the extra features as there isn't a lot of difference in this department between the three discs.
The main supplement on this disc is a twenty-five minute interview with Suzuki 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.
Finishing off the extra features are a text biography and filmography for Suzuki, the original theatrical trailer for the film, a decent still gallery of promotional artwork and photographs, and finally, a selection of liner notes that give a brief history of Seijin Suzuki and the Taisho Trilogy.
Zigeunerweisen is an interesting and visually arresting film that might not be the best Suzuki movie to start with but that should definitely 'wow' those who appreciate the inventiveness and creativity of his better films. Kino's DVD is light on supplements but the interview is a nice touch and the feature looks and sounds good, making this one highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.