A restless, tinkering innovator at heart who’d jumped from one lackluster or hostile environment to another during his youth, Suzuki was overdue for a sturdy support system to give shape to his talents, and it’s thanks to Nikkatsu’s leap of faith that a Japanese cinema seeking a new identity after the war was energized by one of its zaniest visionaries. Special thanks to: Tom Vick—Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institute; Kanako Shirasaki—The Japan Foundation, New York; Ned Hinkle—Brattle Theatre; Stacie Matsumoto—Reischauer Institute, Harvard. With Testsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tsuyoshi Yoshida Japan 1966, DCP, b/w & color, 82 min.
Japanese with English subtitles Tasked with making a vehicle for actor/singer Tetsuya Watari to croon the title song, Suzuki concocted this crazy yarn about a reformed yakuza on the run from his former comrades.
It was in films like 1980’s , afforded him an unprecedented opportunity to push his action filmmaking eccentricities into overdrive on the dime of a sympathetic backer.
Most of these early efforts, which seldom ran over an hour, have been forgotten, and none are available on home video, though their titles alone, fortuitously or not, suggest a sensibility in training. Whatever their merits, these projects paved the way for Suzuki’s stable position in the Nikkatsu Rolodex, which he maintained for a decade at a pace of three or four films a year.
(“No-name directors like me had zero time, so I had no choice but to stay up all night and never go home,” reflects Suzuki on the job requirements.) It was in this role that he developed the reputation he most popularly holds today—that is, as a purveyor of generically plotted yakuza films marked by an ever-increasing stylistic lunacy.
But to imply that Suzuki was finally self-actualized as an artist once liberated from the clutches of the commercially safe Nikkatsu would be a patent mistruth.
Not only did the eternally pragmatic and humble director embrace his responsibilities as an entertainer-for-hire (“I didn’t feel like rebelling against the system…I was just trying to grind out program pictures,” he submits), but it might also be argued that the industrial context within which Suzuki worked provided the walls he needed to push against in developing his filmmaking voice.