Goodbye, Seijun Suzuki

Seijun Suzuki died last week. It’s ok if you don’t know who he is. Outside Japan, he enjoys cult status at best, his films celebrated by movie nerds but few people beyond that. It took almost ten days for news of his death to make headlines in America.

I came to Suzuki by way of Tokyo Drifter, the 1966 film that, along with his next film (Branded to Kill), got him fired from Nikkatsu, the Japanese studio for which he made yakuza flicks in the 1950s and 60s. The studio had asked for simple gangster pulp, but Suzuki delivered the avant-garde.

Tokyo Drifter - Seijin Suzuki

Still from Tokyo Drifter

With Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki took a canned script and crafted the unforgivingly theatrical, intentionally artificial world of Tetsuya ‘Phoenix Tetsu’ Hondo, a mid-level gangster caught up in the machinations of his yakuza bosses. There’s no point in discussing the plot beyond that because the plot’s not the point. Instead, Suzuki banked on style.

It was 1999. New Orleans. Sophomore year of college. I’d bought the Criterion Collection DVD of Tokyo Drifter sight unseen on the recommendation of my late pal Kirk Lawrence. I know you’d know Kirk’s name if he’d lived a little longer. He was a walking filmic encyclopedia, destined to make John Carpenter-style cult classics. Kirk knew I’d like the movie. He understood my stylistic leanings before I did.

I still have that Tokyo Drifter DVD even though I bought the Blu-ray version the day it released. Why hang onto the DVD when I’ll never put into a player again? Nostalgia, for sure, but also because it summons the memory of that first viewing. I describe very few of my experiences as revelatory, but discovering Seijun Suzuki was just that.

Tokyo Drifter doesn’t always make sense. Why is the main character whistling his own theme song? How did he end up in this random shootout? Why does the final scene take place in a minimalist representation of a jazz club? That it doesn’t make sense doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s captivating. It’s beautiful. It’s good.

I learned from Suzuki the value of throwing your shit out there with style and letting it speak for itself. Style becomes substance. The people who are supposed to get will get it. Don’t let the explanations get in the way of your art. Make the good thing that only you can make.

Here’s to you, Mr. Suzuki, for my earliest lessons in artistic confidence. And here’s hoping I don’t have to get fired to live up to your example.