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Nikkatsu Agitator: “Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!” vs. “3 Seconds Before Explosion”

Fernando F. Croce

Recently released by Kino International, Seijun Suzuki’s Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (1963) and Motomu Ida’s 3 Seconds Before Explosion (1967) share locales (Japan’s wildly prolific Nikkatsu Studio) and origins (novels by Haruhiko Oyabu), yet exist in different worlds. The objective is the same: to fashion a yakuza thriller, a genre product founded on infiltration, betrayal, and characters navigating parallel netherworlds (the police station vs. the gangland hideout). But where Ida follows the blueprint and hits his marks like a good soldier, Suzuki keeps coloring outside the lines. The conventionally handsome spy in 3 Seconds (Akira Kobayashi) contrasts with the rubbery, gooey-haired shamus (Jo Shishido, Suzuki’s blowfish axiom) in Detective Bureau 2-3. The anonymously pert gal Friday in the Ida becomes in the Suzuki a bespectacled, dykey, sarcastic cop secretary, a full comic portrait, like Anna Lee’s canvas-scrubbing lush in Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono. Nightclub scenes abound in both films, a tasteful Japanese ballad in one (a circular pan follows the kimono-clad chanteuse) and a raucous rockabilly number in the other (cutting between the hellcat screeching in broken English on the stage and the audience in jagged close-ups turns the scene into odd shards of red, gray, and pink). More to the point, where Ida’s characters watch the show from their seats, Suzuki’s are forever on the verge of breaking into a dance themselves. 3 Seconds Before Explosion is an horizontal drift, like the cat-burglar hero flying out of the kingpin’s mansion in an improvised hand-glider; Detective Bureau 2-3 leaves a zigzag of multicolor flares, grimaces, sudden gestures that poke through the skin of narrative.

3 Seconds to Explosion came out the year Suzuki’s flagrant discontinuity and perverse cartooning hit record levels in Branded to Kill (minus-1000 on the Ozu scale, roughly) and got him unceremoniously sacked from Nikkatsu. By comparison, Detective Bureau 2-3 is a fairly straightforward yakuza jostle, its distortions of style for the most part kept in check by an all-business storyline. Still, you can’t imagine its tone-splitting dissonances, like the police chief disguised as a priest who’s approached by a gangster’s moll looking for atonement, popping up in Ida’s far smoother, safer picture. Like those of Godard and Losey, Suzuki’s secret-agent yarns are sinister pop objects. His Japan is a welter of lounges, warehouses, gangs (criminal and otherwise) in matching jackets; as with Kinji Fukasaku’s caustic gunblasts in the 1970s, the underworld can easily stand for the world. “Normal” staples, like family (Youth of the Beast) or the military (Fighting Elegy), are acknowledged only to be mocked mercilessly. If 3 Seconds to Explosion can track things down to a single Teutonic villain, society itself has become malignantly Westernized in Detective Bureau 2-3: party revelers rally around a huge, plastic Christmas tree, a midnight rendezvous between corrupt Yankees and yakuza mobsters is interrupted as a Pepsi truck plows through and sprays both sides with bullets. The film is one of four that Suzuki churned out in 1963; half snub-nosed potboiler and half spastic vaudeville, it swarms with ideas. Had he focused his anarchic impulses into a laser beam, his visions of imploding film and order might have rivaled Oshima’s. But then we wouldn’t have the haphazard delirium of Kageroza and Pistol Opera.

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