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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 2. Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies (Blu-ray)
Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 2. Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies (Blu-ray)
Arrow Video // Unrated // April 17, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $51.36 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 24, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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An older, rascally Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017) dominates the cover art of Arrow Video's new Blu-ray boxed set Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2 / Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies. That mouthful of a title is slightly misleading. The Japanese filmmaker's "outlaw master" style, most famously on display in his last films for Nikkatsu Studios, Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), is nowhere to be found in these early works, five features released during 1957-61.

What is on display is some enormously effective genre filmmaking, B-level movies made in the efficient, imaginative style common to virtually all Japanese studio filmmaking of that era, and certainly not the exclusive domain of Seijun Suzuki. Randomly pick any five studio-made features from 1957-61 and what you'd likely get would be five equally entertaining, well-made movies.

That's because western audiences and even some Japanese film scholars don't get one of the key differences in the evolutions of Japanese and Hollywood movies. In America, the great filmmakers to emerge from the ranks of lower-budgeted genre films, directors like Samuel Fuller, Edgar Ulmer, and Roger Corman (to name three) were the exception, not the rule. Most were hacks like William Beaudine or Edward L. Cahn. American B-movies were ground out with little ambition beyond getting them done. In Japan's Golden Age of filmmaking, directors, writers, actors, and more were carefully nurtured for years in apprenticeship programs, and carefully eased into those positions over a series of films when, finally, they could put their years of training to full use. That's why nearly all Japanese movies through the early 1970s (when the studio system collapsed) are so well made. Even ordinary, quickly made second features have a polish completely lacking in 95% of their American counterparts.

This isn't to suggest this boxed set isn't loads of fun. It is. As far as this critic is concerned, any release of any early postwar-to-early ‘70s Japanese movie in the west is always welcome and worthwhile. It does seem strange, however, that of Suzuki's roughly 50 films, all of the major ones and most of the minor ones have been released in the west on DVD and/or Blu-ray, while so many classics of Japanese cinema are egregiously underrepresented, with many masters of Japanese film aced out completely. In a 1989 poll of Japanese critics, for instance, Keisuke Kinoshita was named Japan's fourth-greatest director, behind Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. How many of his movies are available in the U.S.? Five in one DVD set, and there's one Blu-ray. How about Tadashi Imai, who ranks seventh, just ahead of Suzuki? Zero.

Of course, it's not Seijun Suzuki's fault that his fellow filmmakers are so ignored, nor am I arguing against the release of this set. These five movies are fun and enjoyable, if not emblematically Suzukian. But a release such as this does underscore a basic problem with our western-world viewing habits.

8 Hours of Terror (8 jikan no kyofu, 1957) is a perfect example of this. A taut, 78-minute thriller, it's packed liked sardines with interesting characters, suspense and excitement, and even some comedy. Train passengers at a remote station in rural Japan find themselves stranded when a landslide halts train service indefinitely. A dozen or so passengers, anxious to meet a connecting train to Tokyo the next morning, decide to take their chances aboard an old bus whose driver (Junpei Murakoshi) is willing to risk dangerous, Wages of Fear-like mountain roads to get them there.

Passengers include a pompous company president (Taizo Fukami) and his snooty wife; wide-eyed Japanese Communist Party college students (Hideaki Nitani and Minako Kazuki); a suicidal single mother (Sumiko Minami) and her baby; a convict (Nobuo Kaneko) convicted of murdering his wife and her lover after returning home from the war; a prostitute (Harue Tone) who serviced U.S. military bases and who had an African-American lover; a young lover (Keishichi Nakahara) and his money-conscious mistress (Keiko Shima); an obnoxious, garrulous traveling salesman (Kan Yanagiya); and, amusingly, a high school girl (Fumiko Fukuda) en route to a Tokyo movie studio's "New Face" contest.

Along the way, they encounter a pair of fugitives (Kenjiro Uemura and Hiroshi Kondo), on the lam after a 20 million yen bank heist (about $56,000, a fortune back then). They hijack the bus, threatening all the passengers, including the baby.

Jasper Sharp's excellent booklet essay remarks that 8 Hours of Terror has "no political dimension," one of the few areas in which we strongly disagree. During the journey, the upright wealthier passengers haughtily judge and condemn the prostitute, the prisoner, and the single mother, but when their trip turns life-threatening, it's the prostitute who by far proves to the bravest and most selfless among the passengers, while the prisoner, a former doctor, comes to the aid of the others, particularly the single mother and her baby after a mid-ride suicide attempt. The commie students try to calm the baby's and everyone's nerves by singing a Japanese-translated Russian folk song, deeply offending the company president and his wife, but pretty soon he's tapping his toes to the rhythm, even if his wife disapproves.

Further, the boastful men, particularly the company president and thoroughly annoying salesman, turn to jelly at the first sign of trouble, while the women aboard the bus gradually build up enough nerve to stand up to the bank robbers en masse, even as most of the men cower behind them. For such an unpretentious little B-movie the characters, while all stereotypes of a kind, are unusually rich.

Particularly noteworthy is Nobuo Kaneko's performance as the doctor-turned-prisoner. In direct opposition to the broad, more typically Japanese performers like Yanagiya, Kaneko's reactions to cruel insults and begrudging thanks alike are extremely subtle, that of a defeated man who seizes an opportunity to redeem himself just a bit, while recognizing that it isn't going to change anything. It's even more impressive when one considers that western world audiences know Kaneko primarily as the comically emotional and amoral gang boss of Kinji Fukasaku's Battles without Honor and Humanity films.

The second film, chronologically, in the set, is far less interesting. The Sleeping Beast Within (Kemono no nemuri, 1960) starts out intriguingly, with mid-level management employee Junpei Ueki (Shunsuke Ashida) returning to Japan and his family aboard the Blue Clipper ocean liner after a two-year stint in Hong Kong. However, the very night of his return he vanishes following a party in his honor, where in fact he is cruelly sent packing by his bosses, forced to retire with a modest pension.

His wife (Hisano Yamaoka) and adult daughter, Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), distraught, turn to Keiko's newspaper reporter boyfriend, Shotaro (Hiroyuki Nagato), for help. A series of clues - a jade ring, an out-of-character visit to a snack bar, a sun-worshipping sect, a double-suicide attempt by an associate - create more questions than answers, but eventually suggest ties to a heroin-smuggling operation. But then Keiko receives a telegram from "Papa," explaining that he up and left to visit a hot springs, and returns home the next day, acting strangely but seemingly no worse for the wear. Was he kidnapped? Is Ueki a victim or one of the drug smuggling ringleaders?

Regrettably, the answers aren't satisfying and the story becomes increasingly preposterous, its fiery climax so bad it's funny. Suspense melodramas about newspaper reporters investigating drug trafficking was in vogue in Japanese cinema of the late-‘50s/early ‘60s, with similar yarns emanating from most of the country's big studios. Here, Ueki buys an expensive (by Japanese standards of the time), western-style house in the hills overlooking Yokohama, much like Toshiro Mifune's character in Kurosawa's High and Low, and there are vague similarities in their depictions of the seemliness in the streets below, notably jazzy hangouts populated by black American G.I.s on leave and where drugs are dealt fairly openly. Mostly, though, The Sleeping Beast Within is no better than average, with the character of the Papa Ueki jerked this way and that by the film's clumsy writers.

The most celebrated film in the set is Smashing the O-Line (Mikko 0 rain, 1960), with "O," as in the letter in the English version, but "0," as in zero, in the Japanese title. Again playing a reporter, this stars Hiroyuki Nagato as Katori, the Japanese equivalent of Kirk Douglas's character in Billy Wilder's darkest film, Ace in the Hole (1951). Katori is so casually ruthless and amoral that, in want of fame-making scoops, he sets up his former classmates for drug raids, has his Chinese informant (Eitaro Ozawa) set up as a patsy, and seriously considers selling out his kid sister, Sumiko (Mayumi Shindo) to a gang-rape rather than give up a good story about Hong Kong-to-Japan human trafficking. Another former classmate, rival reporter Nishina (Yuji Kodaka), also Sumiko's boyfriend, is appalled at Katori's dearth of ethics, but can do little to stop him.

The film elements sourced here are in better shape than the first two films, thus affording viewing with the opportunity to soak up all the sleazy, early postwar atmosphere of several port cities and their rundown Chinese enclaves, but the film is in some ways even less engaging than The Sleeping Beast Within. Katori's actions from beginning to end are consistently reprehensible, but the screenplay makes little effort to explain how Katori got that way or how he can justify his actions. Nishina's desperate attempts to tame him go nowhere; he comes off as preachy but toothless until the slam-bang action finish, the movie ending ambiguously without much resolution to the conflict.

Suzuki's direction layers on the sleaze, with lots of sweaty sex and sadism, yet despite a moderately higher budget (more locations, more extras) his direction at times is fairly sloppy. One scene, for instance, ends with a medium shot looking up at Katori that, inexplicably, cuts to the back of his head for several seconds, to a nearly identical angle but at a different interior setting. Apparently Suzuki hadn't shot enough coverage to make a smooth transition between scenes, hence that awkward insertion. In other parts of the movie Suzuki resorts to another tool of directors who don't shoot enough coverage, the optical printer, to create postproduction "cuts" by zooming in on the printed image.

The set takes a loopy turn with Tokyo Knights (Tokyo kishitai [naito], 1961), a genre smorgasbord mixing protoWakadaisho teen musical romance elements with broad comedy, mystery and, this being a Nikkatsu film, organized crime action-melodrama. Koji Wada, a baby-faced Yujiro Ishihara type, stars as Koji, a teenager (Wada was about 16 at the time of filming) brought home from private schooling in America to assume control of his father's construction company after the latter's mysterious accidental (?) death. Enrolling at the Elizabeth Academy, a vast Catholic campus Koji, just like "Young Guy" Yuzo Kayama beginning the following year in Toho's hit film series, is a master of every sport thrown his way (rugby, kendo, fencing, boxing), and a jazz pianist to boot.

Though based on a story by Kensaburo Hara, the basic plot is an obvious steal from Hamlet, especially after Koji learns that the company's duplicitous executive director (Nobuo Kaneko) is having an affair with his recently widowed mother (Yoko Minamida). But Throne of Blood this is not. Where Toho's subsequent Wakadaisho movies were slickly made, lushly romantic with their varied locations (often abroad), and surprisingly good Ventures-influenced music (songs written by star Yuzo Kayama), Tokyo Knights is merely silly and frivolous. Koji's idealized high living (save for his underworld connections), including driving around in a vintage Rolls-Royce convertible and adored by all at his school, may have provided teenage moviegoers in Japan an appealing fantasy they could scarcely imagine, but story-wise it's awfully hokey.

The final film, Man with a Shotgun (Shottogan no otoko, 1961) is a hoot, practically a sukiyaki Western set in the nearly inaccessible Kiso Forest. Hideaki Nitani stars as stoic, Alan Ladd-esque hero, Ryoji, well dressed and armed, who stumbles upon a virtually hidden, highly suspicious logging company run by dapper if fat Nishioka (Akio Tanaka). The loggers are a rowdy, tough bunch, but even they're leery of near-psychopath Masa (Yuji Kodaka), who takes an instant dislike to Ryoji; and three toughs that are clearly gangsters.

Despite its remoteness, saloon madam Harue (Yoko Minamida) keeps both the liquor (Asahi beer, no doubt aggressively product-placed) and, inexplicably, an inexhaustible supply of loose women stocked for the thirsty, horny loggers. What's left of the local tiny village is virtually unprotected by its weak lawman, Okumura (Toshio Takahara), who wants to avenge his wife's rape and murder by one or more of the gangsters. Ryoji, as well, is searching for the men who gang-raped and murdered his fiancée, but the growing affections of Okumura's sister-in-law, Setsuko (Izumi Ashikawa) cloud Ryoji's resolve.

A welcome break from the familiar trappings of the middle films, Man with a Shotgun returns to the rural setting of 8 Hours of Terror, this time in color and NikkatsuScope. Its Western genre emulating is amusing and often peculiar: There's much talk of resolving differences with gun duels of various kinds, there's a lost mine, and Harue's saloon is a weird fusing of Western movie saloons, complete with a long bar and swinging doors, but it's also where the lumberjacks slurp udon noodles and sing old-fashioned Japanese folk songs. Ryoji isn't exactly a singing cowboy, but he both sings and, despite wearing heavy leather gloves, plays the accordion.

This type of "Northwestern" was in vogue in Japan and elsewhere during the period, somewhat resembling movies like the British-made Campbell's Kingdom (1957) and similar but largely unseen Japanese pictures like the Toshiro Mifune action film Tatsu (1962), released a few months later.

Video & Audio

8 Hours of Terror is in black-and-white and "standard size," i.e. 1.37:1, while the others are all in 2.35:1 NikkatsuScope, with the last two in color. The Sleeping Beast Within seems sourced from secondary film elements, but the two color titles, Man with a Shotgun especially, look great, and all generally are a pleasure to watch in high-def. The LPCM mono, Japanese only, is fine, and the optional English subtitles are good translations that are easy on the eyes. This is a limited edition set of 1,500 units.

Extra Features

Supplements include an excellent audio commentary by Jasper Sharp on Smashing the 0-Line, and video essays by Tony Rayns. Also included are still galleries and trailers for some but not all of the films. Best of all is the thick booklet, highlighted by a long essay by Sharp but also including cast and credits, a Suzuki filmography, photos, and notes about the transfers.

Parting Thoughts

An enjoyable set with good video transfers and supplements, Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2 / Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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