Thirty minutes into the first film of his late-career Taishō trilogy, the Teutonically titled Zigeunerweisen, I realized that for the first time in many a film I was finally getting the pure product...Seijun Suzuki, raw and uncut. This was the great big (weird) epic waiting to leap out of him after all those years as a B-movie director indentured to a studio, the demented Lawrence of Arabia festering in his loins that had been suppressed like a dirty urge for far, far too long. All those brilliant, offbeat touches formerly relegated to the margins of his genre-bound yakuza, juvenile delinquent and cop programmers that could be spotted here and there, as in Tokyo Drifter's mad rainbow art direction or Branded to Kill's odd bits of actorly business were now front and center without apology or conventional narrative to tether them down. I quickly came to realize that Seijun Unchained can be an awe-inspiring and exhausting thing.
Clocking in at a bulky two and a half hours (rather than his usual brisk 90 mins), Zigeunerweisen sounds like something you sampled at the biergarten a few weeks back. It's ripe with hoppy weirdness: scenes of eyeball licking, a disabled Greek chorus that appears intermittently to sing scatological love songs, a form of early 1920s wife-swapping wherein the husbands not only exchange their brides bodily but also their brides' ghosts. Then there's this whole business with pink bones. "Whoever dies first, the other will get their bones" says one of the leads to the other, adding that when crushed into a fine powder these bones tend to be pink.
Trust me, it's less confusing than you think, and Zigeunerweisen is the best and most coherent of the bunch. Everything comes together in a pleasing and far from obvious way. It has something to do with the Sarasate recording at the film’s center and its mysterious bit of mumbling captured on the phonograph. It reminded me at times of the best of Lynch and Jodorowsky.
As the trilogy progresses, the Law of Diminishing Returns begins to kick in. Kagero-Za features a writer obsessed with a ghostly woman who crushes and later bathes in a vat of bladder cherries. There is more business with supernatural doppelgangers, handcrafted dolls whose souls (and other vital organs) can be found by looking up their dresses. There is a stage play performed entirely by children which would seem to summarize the two-plus hours of adult interactions we've just seen. I'm not sure how much it explained or if it only confused me more.
By the time the last of the trilogy, Yumeji, rolled into my DVD player, I have to admit I was suffering a little Suzuki fatigue. The lead was a painter this time, and there was something to do with a cuckholded husband running around with a scythe looking for the man who slept with his wife. And boating, lots of boating. No bladder cherries or eyeball licking but lots of lovely, blood-spattered screen prints. Even at his oddest, eldest and most unrestrained, Suzuki always brings the visual panache. Some seven hours later, my corneas are still drenched.