Okay, I've tried. Seijun Suzuki's famous 1960s arty stuff isn't for me, although I haven't yet tried his earlier, more conventional B-movie fare like Satan's Town, The Naked Woman and the Gun, Take Aim at the Police Van, Go to Hell, Hoodlums! and Stories of Bastards: Born Under a Bad Star. If nothing else, they have magnificent titles.
Some history is required. Seijun Suzuki had been a Nikkatsu staff director for ten years and they were getting ever more irritated with his growing disinterest in ordinary genre filmmaking. He got weird. He shot scenes in unconventional ways to keep himself from getting bored. Admittedly his films were still profitable, but with Tokyo Drifter, Nikkatsu decided that enough was enough. In an attempt to tone down his eccentricities, they slashed his budget and thus had the opposite effect from what they'd intended. Suzuki pushed himself to new heights of surrealism. After this, they made him shoot in black-and-white. Suzuki saw this as a challenge.
In 1967, he was fired for incomprehensibility. He sued Nikkatsu and won, but was blacklisted for ten years.
All this sounds great, but unfortunately I was kind of bored by this and his magnum opus, Branded to Kill
. Suzuki's contempt for normal filmmaking extends to a distaste for plotting and character. To be blunt, the story is of little interest. Even the film's fans admit this, saying for instance that the plot is less important than "the gorgeous Pop Art sets, the bizarre musical sequences, the confusing but ballistic action scenes and the film's gunbutt attitude." I don't mind those things, but at the end of the day I didn't care about what was happening. It's just stuff moving on a screen.
Mind you, the film's narrative is arguably ahead of its time. This was the "ninkyo eiga" (i.e. chivalry) era of yakuza films, in which our yakuza hero would be an honourable outlaw trying to reconcile his feelings with his duty. They're samurai, basically. This film though has more in common with the "jitsuroku" (docudrama) yakuza films of the 1970s, albeit a million miles away from their documentary-style camerawork and real-life stories. A jitsuroku yakuza is a ruthless, backstabbing killer and in no way whatsoever adhering to the samurai code of honour. Suzuki's film isn't going that far, but instead it's effectively a deconstruction and maybe even a parody of the ninkyo eiga.
Specifically, he's telling a story about loyalty. Tetsuya Watari is an ex-yakuza who's unswervingly loyal to his boss, Ryuji Kita. He'd do anything for him... so when Kita announces that he's going to give up crime and dissolve the mob, Watari obeys. The film begins with him letting himself get beaten almost to death without even fighting back against a rival yakuza mob who want to recruit him.
Unfortunately for Kita and Watari, the other yakuza in Tokyo haven't given up crime and would like to get their hands on Kita's assets. A building development is the main prize, but Watari and his girlfriend are also attractions. Gangster stuff happens... and Watari leaves Tokyo to become a homeless wanderer. The logic of this could have been more clearly explained. Yakuza follow him, although with hindsight I'm not sure why. Watari is tempted to revert to his old, violent ways, like Jesus in the wilderness but with more gunfights. Friends welcome him. He gives them the brush-off. Then eventually Suzuki pulls the rug from under Watari's feet in an even bigger way than before, yielding a finale in which bad is good, good is bad and the man who's turning on his friend is suddenly dressed head to toe in white, as if this is Suzuki's idea of purity. Given what he's saying about yakuza loyalty, maybe it is?
This is theoretically interesting, but in practice it's a bit hard to care. You're not being invited to empathise. Watari is almost an anti-protagonist, defined by his refusals to do as would any other genre hero in his position. This even extends to his girlfriend, to whom he'll hardly even talk and instead will walk away and barely acknowledges her existence. This was the height of James Bond mania and Suzuki does a reference to Bond's "shooting at the camera" title sequence within the first minute of his film, but it would be reasonable to conclude that Watari is gay and loves his boss, Kita. The latter is certainly true, at the very least platonically. Meanwhile the former isn't much of a stretch, e.g. "I'm not into women". If Suzuki is trying to subvert the usual genre conventions (which he is), then it seems possible that he'd be asking questions about his macho hit man hero's sexuality.
What's most striking visually are the colours. Suzuki uses black and white in the opening sequence and plays games with it, but then later switches to striking, almost pop art colour. Chieko Matsubara singing in yellow. Watari himself being the Blue Man. The pipe room. Most obviously, the white near-abstract set in the finale, for which Suzuki's almost entirely jettisoned realism.
Meanwhile the incidental music is also capable of jumping up and down to make you notice it.
Here's what Suzuki thought:
"Actually making movies was painful work, as I often said to my wife. I had already wanted to quit four or five years before. I told her I hated this foolish, painful process. She told me I shouldn't say such a thing... that if I talked that way, it would come true. And it eventually did. For me, it was a relief. I felt this way from the very start."
This film isn't worthless. I dislike the "ninkyo eiga" mythos of samurai-like yakuza and I approve of Suzuki's subversion of it. It also has moments of humanity and even humour, such as for instance the scene where Watari's saying goodbye and Kita's trying to organise something nice for him. That was sweet. There's a massive bar-room brawl, as if this were a western. It also looks fresh and striking, in a way that's dated well. However its characters strike me as deliberately uninvolving and it's easier to appreciate its story if you know that it's subverting something that went out of fashion forty years ago.
The box office was bad, by the way. I'm not surprised.