Undoubtedly one of the best of the Japanese B-stylists, the critical discussion surrounding Seijun Suzuki tends to focus on his notorious dismissal from Nikkatsu studios following the release of Koroshi no rakuin (Branded to Kill, 1967), widely considered the apotheosis of his artistic progression. Not all of his earlier films, however, are lesser works, and in many cases Suzuki’s artistic compromises are as impressive as his better-known acts of rebellion. Kanto mushuku (Kanto Wanderer, 1963) is one such case, reflecting the delicate tension of an ambitious director working under economic and generic limitations. It is also a fine example of how Nikkatsu’s restrictions were sometimes well suited to Suzuki’s particular style of filmmaking.
Take, for instance, the ninkyo eiga, a burgeoning genre at Nikkatsu in 1963 that would soon take over the studio’s signature style of mukokuseki, or “borderless” action films. Ninkyo films highlight the yakuza’s giri-ninjo code of duty and self-sacrifice, usually in honour of a gang boss or an equivalent role model. In Kanto Wanderer, the lead character Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi) embarks on a Romeo and Juliet-type romance with a femme fatale card sharp, but ultimately sacrifices his livelihood for his yakuza boss when he goes on a killing spree to protect the autonomy of his gang. As with all of Suzuki’s assigned scripts at Nikkatsu, the story of Kanto Wanderer is bland and even stale. But the guiding premise of the ninkyo genre would prove useful for Suzuki, as the yakuza code of duty both excused his bizarre, unrealistic characters and provided him with a subject ripe for internal criticism. Being his first ninkyo film, Suzuki’s commentary on the genre in Kanto Wanderer is subtle. Katsuta risks his life so that he can correct the mistakes of his reckless gang brother, and faces a long jail sentence for defending his boss. This boss is promptly killed following Katsuta’s act of valour. Our hero retains his honour, but the ultimate sentiment of the film is one of disappointment as Katsuta ends the film alone in his jail cell. In later years Suzuki would build upon his criticism of the ninkyo genre, finally evolving into head-on ridicule. In Tokyo nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter, 1966), for example, the lead character Tetsuya stands up for a father-figure boss who turns against him, forcing the young yakuza to fend for himself. In Branded to Kill, Joe Shishido famously played a killer who shunned all authority and community, totally against the ninkyo ideal of self-sacrifice.
Heroes of the ninkyo genre are inevitably unrealistic and irrational, as Suzuki makes clear in all of his yakuza films. In Kanto Wanderer Katsuta is an outdated relic from the past, uncomfortable even among his own gang. Kobayashi’s portrayal is dashing, honourable and serious – but also a little strange. Always eager to present romantic tropes that were outside of the norm, Suzuki must have enjoyed Katsuta’s rejection of the beautiful, doting Tokiko (Nikkatsu leading lady Chieko Matsubara) for the older, plainer and married card sharp Tatsuko (played by Hiroko Ito, who previously starred as another object of oedipal affection in Suzuki’s Yaju no seishun [Youth of the Beast, 1963]).
At the time of Kanto Wanderer, Nikkatsu was known for its house style of “borderless” action films, or mukokuseki, in which the time period and locations of the films were vaguely contemporary, but would mix different styles and signifiers into a single package. Tailored “Rat Pack” suits clashed with traditional kimonos, pistols with swords, and orchestral music cues with swinging diegetic jazz tunes. Toss the dusty ethics of the ninkyo genre into this postmodern melting pot and you have a wonderfully synthetic canvas primed for Suzuki and his art director Takeo Kimura.
Visually Kanto Wanderer owes much to the style of Kabuki theatre, starting with Katsuta’s sharply painted, gigantic eyebrows. In keeping with the loose allowances of borderless action, Katsuta is, inexplicably, the only character with such garish makeup and yet his eyebrows somehow fall into place in a film with an emotional tone and colour scheme worthy of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. As Suzuki explained to Mark Schilling, “in Kabuki they show everything at once. The interest is in seeing where and how the actors enter and exit […]. The continuity comes from the unity of atmosphere.” (1) For further evidence of Suzuki’s appreciation for Kabuki staging, one need only look to the astonishing depth-of-field in certain scenes in Kanto Wanderer. Narrow streets and alleyways abound in the outdoor scenes, leading out, upward and away from the action in the foreground. For a man who constantly had to direct “on the fly” with minimal resources at hand, Suzuki’s compositions are meticulous. In this film, most of Suzuki’s “special effects” – changes in colour and light; swinging overhead lamps or colourful spotlights – occur in front of the camera in real-time, creating both a theatrical aesthetic and an urgent sense of time passing. The presence of an unabashed spectacle in front of the camera and Suzuki behind it is palpable, particularly during specific scenes of wordless dramatic import.
Even so, Suzuki’s method of visual description is not uniform or consistently theatrical. The mise en scène is constantly choreographed but, at times, the camera takes charge, conspicuously tracking sideways to reveal Katsuta in a moment of bitter revelation, creating a dramatic resonance that retroactively accounts for the negative space that previously hovered to his right. In another scene, the camera moves forward and back to enhance changes in the lighting design while the actors remain still. And in the climactic fight scene in the gambling den, Suzuki pointedly offers us a beautiful wide shot in contrast to the deep staging scattered throughout the rest of the film. Katsuta takes on his opponents along the horizontal axis, and when the paper walls of the den crash down there is nothing in the background, only a shockingly lit red backdrop.
Colour is key throughout the film. In one scene Katsuta and Tatsuko have a tense confrontation indoors as the sun presumably sets outside. Light on the other side of the paper screen doesn’t quite fade, but rather shifts rapidly through gradations of yellow and orange, blue, and finally bright violet; shades of a sunset drawn from a Technicolor palette. Drastic changes in lighting haunt the most memorable scenes in the film. When the action is important a bright white spotlight will follow significant characters. During the scene where Katsuta forces himself on Tatsuko, the radical alternation of light between the actors and the courtyard behind them appears to expand time and heighten emotional tension as the soon-to-be couple remains silent.
Like director Sam Fuller or producer Val Lewton, Suzuki clearly flourished under strict studio conditions. In 1963, Kanto Wanderer was double-billed with Shohei Imamura’s Nippon konchuki (The Insect Woman), the latter of which ended up being Nikkatsu’s biggest hit that year, providing Suzuki with some success by proxy. The following year, Suzuki’s Nikutai no mon (Gate of Flesh, 1964) proved a veritable hit at a time when cinema attendance in Japan was at a low. Suzuki was perfectly capable of reeling in audiences while simultaneously testing the limits of the studio system. As an example of Suzuki’s mid-period output at Nikkatsu, Kanto Wanderer offers us an inspiring sample of experimentation on assignment.
Kanto mushuku/Kanto Wanderer (1963 Japan 92 mins)
Prod Co: Nikkatsu Dir: Seijun Suzuki Scr: Yasutaro Yagi, based on the story by Taiko Hirabayashi Phot: Shigeyoshi Mine Ed: Akira Suzuki Art Dir: Takeo Kimura Mus: Masayoshi Ikeda
Cast: Akira Kobayashi, Chieko Matsubara, Daizaburo Hirata, Hiroko Ito, Sanae Nakahara, Kaku Takashina