These two films, though both of the yakuza genre, are NOT the films I’d recommend for Suzuki-newbies. They’re both earlier career works, more traditional yakuza tales (Tattooed Life even being set in the 1920s), and apparently came before the period when Suzuki “went crazy” with color, composition, and style. It’s like looking at Dali’s early drawings before the surrealism bug kicked in, when he was still finding his own style by first mimicking other great artists. You have a tendency to think: “Is this the same guy?”
But in both these movies there are signs of Suzuki's later greatness, elements he would push to the limits in his genre-stretching "crazy films." Tattooed Life is the better of the two. It tells the simple tale of two brothers, a yakuza and an aspiring artist, who are forced to hideout in the Japanese countryside and work construction after the young artist accidentally kills a rival yakuza gang member.
The opening action sequence is shot brilliantly, taking place in the pouring rain with two rickshaws being carried by substitute thugs instead of drivers. The subsequent killings thereafter are quick, kinetic, and brutal. Problem is, the movie goes into a dry spell for the next hour as the two brothers hide out and each develop rather tame love interests. Of course, the yakuza brother is forced to step up in his artist brother’s defense at the end with some dynamic indoor sword play that Tarantino obviously borrowed liberally from in Kill Bill (shots through a see through floor, the use of colored screens and silhouettes, etc.). But then again, Tarantino borrows liberally from many Suzuki movies I’ve seen. That’s what made both Kill Bills mostly a tedious experiment in “movie DJ-ing” for me…I had already heard the originals.
Kanto Wanderer also has a great opening, this time involving a trio of school girls having a vibrantly shot and edited discussion concerning their favorite neighborhood thugs. The movie stays beautifully shot and composed throughout but lost its vibrancy once it delved into its involved yet uninvolving plot -- a lot of business about card playing, old yakuza tradition vs. new school yakuza, a little bit of school girl pimping, and not much action at all. To be honest, I dozed a bit during this one and maybe need to revisit it one day.
So why all the hub-bub about Seijun Suzuki then? I rest my case on three and a half of his other films – Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, Youth of the Beast and significant parts of Gate of Flesh. THOSE are the movies I would recommend, should you have the time. Much crazier, more wildly inventive, and the chipmunk-cheeked lead Jo Shisodo in Branded, Youth, and Gate is to Suzuki as De Niro is to Scorsese. I defy you not to snicker at his sad-sack yakuza’s strange addiction to the smell of steaming rice.