In his 1973 essay, Le Plaisir du texte, Roland Barthes hails the 19th century novelist Gustave Flaubert for pioneering an all-new school of writing. In this brave new world of narrative, writes Barthes, “all the logical small change is between the lines” (1). It is no longer an author’s job, primarily, to tell his reader what happens. The events that make up a story – like the characters that act them out, or the motives that lead them to do so – are of strictly minor importance. What matters to a modern author and, also, by extension, to modern readers (and here Barthes is perhaps a shade too optimistic) is the surface of the text itself. Less a narrative than a dazzling and sensuous objet d’art, a “modern” text according to Barthes seems already half way to the visual world of cinema.
To hail the director Seijun Suzuki as the Flaubert of Japanese cinema may, of course, be going too far. At first glance, Hana to doto (The Flowers and the Angry Waves, 1963) looks like a banal potboiler about warring yakuza gangs and hapless renegade lovers on the road to ruin. (In the same way, Madame Bovary can be read as a commonplace tale of adultery in provincial France.) The film’s aesthetic importance is radically, almost wilfully, divorced from its subject. Unlike the overtly artistic films of Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse or Yasujiro Ozu, a film by Seijun Suzuki is the sort of art that begs to be taken for trash. Had it not been conceived and intended as trash by Nikkatsu – the oldest, and most ruthlessly commercial, of the big Japanese studios – The Flowers and the Angry Waves would never have been made.
The film opens with a traditional wedding procession, snaking its way through a marshland at sunset. Without even the hint of a warning or set-up, a dashing young bandit (Kobayashi) charges in and abducts the bride. Kobayashi was a pop singer as well as an actor (his crooning of the title tune is an acquired taste, to put it politely), and Chieko Matsubara, who plays the bride, was his co-star in numerous films of this ilk. As Tony Rayns points out in his sleeve-notes to the British DVD release: “This is a no-nonsense beginning, and western viewers coming to it fresh may find it a little too oblique and lacking in back-story. Japanese viewers at the time, though, would have recognised the two lead actors immediately […] and could have supplied the back-story in their sleep.” (2)
An audience would do well not to get too involved with the lovers. Suzuki ditches their story almost instantly and switches to the seedy Asakusa district of Tokyo – an underworld riven by brutal gang warfare. The shift is a visual as well as a narrative shock. That opening – to an untrained Western eye, at least – is an image from old-style Japanese woodblocks. Apart from one anachronistic lamppost, we might be watching a tale of medieval samurai. Jarring, then, to find ourselves at the dawn of the 20th century, in a city that’s already prey to fevered industrialisation and rampant urban sprawl. More shocking still to hear characters talk of Japan’s colonial exploits in Manchuria – an adventure that would culminate in the savagery of World War II. Our lovers, and the world they inhabit, are on the brink of a future more ghastly than they dare to imagine.
Here in Tokyo, two rival clans are fighting, not over some medieval notion of honour, but for the lucrative control of the city’s building trade. Our bandit hero is the leader of one such gang, while his ladylove works undercover as a bargirl. We see them together only rarely – and never in any scene that would pass as a romantic interlude. When they meet, it is to reflect on their past troubles, or make tentative plans for a future that never happens. Their love has the power of an illusion, one that can never be fulfilled. The same is true for a spirited geisha (Naoko Kubio) who falls for the hero, and for two older men who lust after the two women. At the closing shot of The Flowers and the Angry Waves – a barren, snowy landscape littered with corpses – we are hard-pressed to think of a film where romantic love costs its characters more or, ultimately, matters less.
A single relationship binds the narrative together, lending it cohesion of some sort: the cat-and-mouse pursuit of the hero by a lone swordsman (Tamio Kawaji) who must kill him to avenge his abduction of the bride. Visually, the two men resemble alter egos. Both have the androgynous, blankly sinister beauty of Alain Delon in one of his French crime films of the same period. Yet the killer, to add to his allure, has a decorative facial scar and sports a black cape (lined in blood red) and a black broad-brimmed hat reminiscent of Zorro. His encounters with the hero play like duels of desire and death, filling in the blanks where love scenes should be, bringing a perverse and subtly homoerotic undertow to the otherwise chaotic plot.
Still, as we have no doubt guessed by now, “plot” ranks perilously low on Suzuki’s list of priorities. The Flowers and the Angry Waves marks a turning point in his twelve-year stint at Nikkatsu – 15 if we count the ugly 1971 court case, where he successfully sued his employers for wrongful dismissal. From 1956 until the early ’60s, Suzuki made popular and plot-driven action movies that earned the company huge sums. In 1968, he was fired after making a string of films (notably his 1967 masterpiece Koroshi no rakuin/Branded to Kill) where flamboyant and stylised imagery took over from plot – and the men who approved the scripts (and signed the cheques) could not tell what was going on.
Not that we can pinpoint, precisely, the moment where Suzuki’s old style left off and his new one began. Obsessions – visual, narrative or otherwise – steal their way gradually into an artist’s work; make themselves felt in ways of which the creator himself may not be aware. The Flowers and the Angry Waves is scarcely more chaotic, in narrative terms, than many other B-movies of the period. Its visual delirium is quite mild, certainly, compared to Branded to Kill – let alone Suzuki’s more recent oddities such as Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera, 2001) and Operetta tanuki goten (Princess Racoon, 2005). Yet there’s a queer, almost abstract intensity to the images. A shaft of moonlight – at once too ghostly and too bright – falls on the heroine as she cowers, terrorised, in an alley. A victim is stabbed in a fight; crimson splashes onto a white screen. Blood? Or a rose on snow?
Ultimately, The Flowers and the Angry Waves is a work of ambiguity, of transition. Echoing the old samurai traditions of Japan’s feudal past, yet warning of the country’s future as a World War II aggressor and a modern-day industrial powerhouse. Its style has the populist energy of Suzuki’s early films but the formula is, visibly, starting to crack. Yes, he may still have a story to tell. That does not mean it makes sense… or that he can still be bothered to tell it. Rayns, perceptively, sees in the film “a wilful and purposive reduction of narrative to its barest essentials, suggesting an impatience with conventional narrative structures that reverberates throughout the movie” (3). In a weird and ritualised act of sacrifice, Suzuki kills the story and brings the image to life.
Why tell us a story when he can show us the world?
- Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte in Œuvres complètes, Tome II 1966-1973, ed. Éric Marty, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1994, p. 1498. Translation from French by the author.
- Tony Rayns, sleeve notes, The Flowers and the Angry Waves, DVD, Yume Pictures, London, 2007, p. 1.
- Rayns, p. 2.
Hana to doto/The Flowers and the Angry Waves (1963 Japan 89 mins)
Prod. Co: Nikkatsu Prod: Takeo Yanagawa Dir: Seijun Suzuki Scr: Kazuo Funabashi, Keichi Abe, Takeo Kimura Phot: Mitsuo Onishi, Kazue Nagatsuka Ed: Ko Suzuki Prod Des: Takeo Kimura Mus: Hajime Okimura
Cast: Akira Kobayashi, Chieko Matsubara, Naoko Kubio, Tamio Kawaji, Kaku Takashina, Shoki Fukae