“Who talks of realism here?”: Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy

The unpredictable Japanese director brings his characteristic style of surrealism to three tales from Japan's early 20th century.
Jesse Cumming

MUBI is showing Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy from November 13 - December 27, 2017 in the United States and United Kingdom.


In a now-famous quote from a 1997 video interview, the late Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki paraphrases Nikkatsu Studio executives when he declares, "I make movies that make no sense and make no money.” The quip is put forth in the context of 1967’sBranded to Kill, the pop-influenced noir that arguably stands as the artistic pinnacle of Suzuki’s career as a filmmaker of yakuza, gangster, and proto-pink films with Nikkatsu. While others have contested Suzuki’s claims that his nonsensical and unbankable output lead to the fissure between the filmmaker and Nikkatsu—pointing instead to the drain he and his dedicated coterie of assistant directors placed on the studio—Branded to Kill was the cap to a prodigious run of no less than two features a year from 1956 through 1966, and Suzuki's his final film before a decade in de-facto exile from the Japanese film industry.  

While the speed of and style of Suzuki’s whiz-bang 1960s work—both on the level of form as well as their production—stands in stark relief to the latter half of the filmmaker's career, it is easy to locate the claims of “nonsense" onto the filmmaker’s Taisho Trilogy, three major late-career films that have been recently restored and are screening this month on MUBI. Perhaps more accurately, in each of the unconventional period pieces we might speak of a Japanese approach of surrealism, one wed with a compelling and dense mixture of formal experimentation, themes of decadence, and traditions of Japanese ghost stories.  While Suzuki’s films occupy themselves with the realm of arts more than politics, the long-standing imbrication of surrealism and (typically leftist) politics in the European context is subtly present; among the many contradictions and irregularities in the films is artistic and intellectual embrace of surrealism in Japan at the same time as the nation’s continued imperial ambitions. 

Each of the films—Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za(1981), and Yumeji (1991)—share a number of complementary preoccupations, and benefit from a shared analysis, even if not initially developed and promoted as a distinct trilogy (particularly as Suzuki released two other films in the decade-long gap between the latter two entries). The most immediate thread that connects the works is the historical era that gives the trilogy its name, stretching from 1912 through 1926, during which time Emperor Taisho reigned and oversaw the nation's unprecedented shift to and embrace of mass and material culture. Immediately following the Meiji epoch initiated in 1868, which saw Japan open its borders after nearly three centuries of isolationism, the Taisho era was one profoundly marked by cultural and artistic exchange with Western nations. It is this exchange and the distinct cosmopolitanism that is of interest to Suzuki, who places his characters into a maelstrom of desires, hauntings, and creative expression, by turns erotic and violent.   

Each of the films are grounded in the history and aesthetics of the era, and even in works without fixed dates—or which span several years—Suzuki introduces signposts, whether historic, sartorial, or artistic, that reinforce and situate the films' period. Most importantly, the films invoke and activate creative preoccupations of the era, particularly those existing at the intersection of Western and Japanese culture. In each of the films the epoch is refracted through its intellectual or artist main characters: a German scholar in Zigeunerweisen, a cosmopolitan playwright from Tokyo in Kagerou-za, and the real-life painter Takehisa Yumeji in Yumeji. As the characters move through spectral love triangles and other absurd encounters the films rarely serve to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the characters as much as build a portrait of a unique and turbulent world.

Attempted readings of the films overly-concerned with plot schematics will lead to frustration, and this is true for Zigeunerweisen in particular, with confusions and themes of inhibited communication that run throughout, starting from the voice of composer Pablo de Sarasate captured on the 1904 phonograph recording of the piece that lends the film its name—a voice audible yet unintelligible. Elsewhere we find examples of mysterious voices uncoupled from bodies, as well as figures with limited senses—most notably a trio of blind beggars that reemerge throughout the narrative. 

Given Suzuki’s interest in artistic production between Japan and the West, we might situate the trilogy in relationship to the filmmaker's peers, both abroad and in Japan. Other writers have deemed the trilogy “Felliniesque,” presumably for their fantastic extravagance, though the films are perhaps better placed in dialogue with the late work of surrealist Luis Buñuel (a sequence of eyeball licking in Zigeunerweisen suggests the influence of the master’s early works, as well). Both Buñuel and Suzuki share a repeated interest in naive figures of privilege and mobility (Buñuel’s arguably sketched with more cynicism), and this mobility made literal propels the loose plots for each filmmaker, with side distractions eventually forming the structure of a film likeThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouise (1972) and well as Kagero-za, arguably the most unpredictable shapeshifter of the three features. Furthermore, the two filmmakers’ late work shares a unique interest in cinematic doubling; almost as an inverse of Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which one character is played by two actresses, in Zigeunerweisen Suzuki casts the same actress in two roles, one eventually replacing the other.  

Upon its release at home, Zigeunerweisen was often discussed and watched in relationship with Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, the other triumphant return of a filmmaker who had spent the 1970s in a period of reduced activity (Kurosawa releasing only Dodes'ka-den in 1970 and Dersu Uzala in 1975, with Suzuki’s sole release the 1977 sordid golf-centered A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness). While Kurosawa’s was the title invited to compete at Cannes, in the year end Kinema Jumpo film critics poll Zigeunerweisen secured the number one position. Closer in cinematic spirit to Suzuki may be the surreal, candy-colored excess of Shuji Terayama, albeit one with less of a youthful nihilism. (Notably, both Terayama and Sukuzi adapted works from the writings of Taisho-era novelist Kyoka Izumi, the former forThe Grass Labyrinth [1979], the latter for Kagero-za.)  

In the more formally impressive moments of Suzuki’s Nikkatsu output one can locate the seeds of the trilogy’s most visually audacious flourishes: the films’ use of color and animations hinting the thrilling superimpositions, slow motion, solarization, and other experimental techniques that emerge intermittently throughout. Likewise, there are a number of themes and collaborators that connect Zigeunerweisen and the rest of the trilogy to Suzuki’s earlier work (many of them detailed in Jasper Sharp’s fine essay that accompanies the recent home video release by Arrow Films), yet the departures are more immediate.  

Though hardly languid in tone, the trilogy’s first film runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, far exceeding the efficient 80 to 90 minutes Nikkatsu releases. Zigeunerweisen’s plot spans several years, as we follow the lead character Aochi, his friend Nakasago, and the latter's love interests Sono and Koine, but rather than utilizing the added time to construct an epic plot, Suzuki is more keen to build a world that is open and devoid of predetermination. What might seem baggy and shapeless becomes an exhilaratingly unpredictable fun-house, with Suzuki ever-keen to foster and permit unexpected  narrative forays. It’s an approach that is shared in the following two films, each running between 120 and 150 minutes.  

Proof that the filmmaker hadn’t lost any of his studio-era efficiency, Suzuki rapidly followed Zigeunerweisen with Kagero-zathe year after (also released under the titleHeat Haze Theatre).  After an encounter with a mysterious woman selling bladder-cherry—an ornamental fruit rumored to contain women’s souls—Matsuzaki, a Tokyo playwright, travels to the rural countryside. Suzuki’s interest in doubling is carried forward, as Matsuzaki encounters a rich patron who supposedly had two wives, who (re)appear as apparitions.  


The most explicitly localized in the period that lends the trilogy its name, Kagero-za opens with a title that situates the film in 1926. As might be expected, given Suzuki’s interest in each of the films in spirits that hover over the border between life and death, the film is set in the final year of the Taisho reign, soon to be followed by the Showa’s era and Japan’s extended period of violent imperialism. Borders are blurred even further as Suzuki upsets clear demarcations between fantasy and reality, as well as an extended sequence that dominates the film’s final act where staged reenactments blur with the lived world of the characters.   

The ruptures that takes place throughout the film are yet another example of Suzuki’s form invoking and representing the social and political turbulence of the era, one marked by emergent militarism and clashing modernities. This also includes the great Edo earthquake of 1923, which decimated much of Tokyo. The earthquake also served to erase the majority of early Japanese film, and for Suzuki the gap in history offers another opportunity to intercede and offer his own imaginings; among other examples one can point to the tableau-vivants in Yumeji, where the individuals’ slight, repeated gestures produce an effect akin to an early Kinetoscope loop.  

Yumeji is  perhaps the most cynical representation ofSuzuki fantastical narratives set against the backdrop of the era, with characters subsumed by their surrounding (dream-) worlds. The film casts rock star Kenji Sawada—known for his role in Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters [1985]—as the titular artist, whose popular portraits of lissome women arguably both defined and influenced the fashion of the epoch, as well as broader visual culture. While the film includes sequences of Yumeji sketching models—with no shortage of sexual coercion and violence, perhaps an unfortunate, ironic case of Suzuki or his producers ceding to lingering pink film tropes—the film is far from a conventional biopic and frequently abandons the star entirely in later sequences. Instead, Yumeji enters the orbit of a widow, and becomes caught up in a series of surreal episodes upon (the ghost of) her husband’s return from the dead, which include additional love interests and a demon spirit. In lieu of biographical details Suzuki presents a blend of expressionistic tropes inspired by the work of the painter, as well as a reflection of the era’s concerns; slyly, Suzuki draws a connection between the material culture of the era with the grieving widow steadfastly waiting and pining for her husband’s return to the world of the flesh and blood.  

Curiously, Wong Kar-wai included the lush “Yumeji’s Theme” during a sequence of In the Mood for Love (2000).Both filmmakers share an interest in representing the past through its visual elements—art, clothing, interior decoration—yet for all its stylization and epochal concerns, Suzuki’s films never fall into the realm of nostalgia. Any invocation of the Taisho era in the trilogy remains grounded in a surrealism that – among other goals - reminds us of that era’s unknowability, whether from history books or cinema. As Yumeji asks in the film, with a provocation that could stand for the whole trilogy, “Who talks of realism here?”

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