Monday, 19 May 2014

Norifumi Suzuki
(1933 – 2014)

“But entertainment, see... if you look back at its history in Japan, it's been anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, since the Edo Period. That's precisely what thrills the audience. You've got to have that element somewhere. The reason why the general public seeks out stories of revolution is because they're searching for some kind of catharsis. They're looking for an escape from oppression.

Of course, it was different with Shochiku audiences. But with us, Toei audiences, they wanted anti-authoritarian movies, no question. That was a given. Because the reason why I feel so strongly about these films, about mass entertainment, is because the real world is no fun for us... and I want to toss a rock at authority. But listen, my films aren't exactly masterpieces... half the time, they're nothing but pure fun. Amusement!”

Some sad news reached me on the trans-continental grapevine this weekend regarding the passing of a director who I think it’s safe to say is one of the heroes of this blog (not to mention the uncontested world champion of making films with wacky sub-titles), the one and only Norifumi Suzuki.

(N.B. - Though his name is sometimes romanised as ‘Noribumi’, which I suspect to be more correct, I’ll go with ‘Norifumi’ in this post, just to remain consistent with previous discussions of him on this blog.)

Writing a post about Norifumi the person is difficult, because whilst I have been consistently fascinated (as well as entertained, astounded and occasionally sickened) by his films, I still know almost nothing at all about the man behind them. Whilst some of his films have definitely picked up a bit of a reputation as ‘cult classics’ in the West, his name remains relatively little known, and, to my knowledge, no one has ever really taken the time to translate an interview with him into English or undertake any critical or biographical writing about him, meaning that, personality-wise, he remains a complete unknown.

Given this dearth of information, you can imagine my surprise and frustration when I wandered into a chain bookstore in Tokyo when I was over there in January, and discovered that Japanese speakers can pick up the guy’s goddamn autobiography, which was proudly displayed amongst the top-selling items in the Cinema section. One of many occasions during my visits to Japan when I could almost weep at my pathetic monolingual status.

Anyway, with such resources remaining unavailable to me, my sole source of Norifumi knowledge remains an online translation of a fourteen minute youtube interview, which I found here. Thankfully, it’s pretty concise and revealing sorta stuff, so quotes from the translation will be used at the beginning and end of this post. That aside though, we’ll have to build a picture of the guy solely through his movies - which suits me, because I always seem to have a lot to say about them.

My own introduction to the ways of Norifumi Suzuki actually came quite a while ago, before I’d really started to develop much of an interest in weird cinema, when, inspired by a highly misleading blurb in our local art cinema’s monthly listings which presented the film as a kind of wham bam, must-see Grindhouse-style action spectacular, a friend and I attended a one-off screening of 1974’s ‘School of the Holy Beast’. Bad move. Largely unschooled in the ways of global exploitation cinema, never mind the particularly savage Japanese iterations thereof, we emerged pale, quivering and speechless from this sordid epic of Sadean, pink eiga-style nunsploitation, causing a mutual friend to greet us with words to the effect of “Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you guys?”

Whilst I have subsequently made a full recovery from the trauma of this screening (well, if you can take the existence of this blog as evidence of recovery, at least), my poor friend remains a little scarred to this day, and is still extremely reluctant to commit to a viewing of any film I’ve recommended, lest the terrible nightmare of sadistic Japanese nun porn begin again. (An understandable concern, to be honest.)

The irony here is though, if the cinema had instead chosen to show pretty much any other example of the fantastic run of films Suzuki made in the first half of the ‘70s, well, I guess we might still have been a bit unnerved by some of the sexual content, but basically I think we’d have got on-board with it and had a blast. I’ve written before here about the spirit of no-holds-barred craziness that seemed to characterise the output of Toei studios in the early ‘70s, and, more than any of their other directors, it was Norifumi-san who really made this style his own.

It is interesting to note though that whilst his films in this era seem to embody an “I couldn’t give a FUCK” spirit that suggests the presence of a speed-huffing, cop-hating teenager behind the camera, Suzuki was actually a seasoned industry professional by the time he initiated the Sukeban/Girl Boss series in 1971, and it is this underlying technical proficiency that keeps his work engaging even in its stupidest and most ragged moments.

What little biographical info is available to me reveals that Suzuki entered the film industry after dropping out of Kyoto’s prestigious Ritsumeikan University in 1956, joining Toei’s Kyoto division shortly thereafter, and working as an assistant director for a few years, until he moved up to scripting and directing in the mid-‘60s. He first made a big impact (as far as I know?) when he wrote the script for 1968’s ‘Red Peony Gambler’, a vehicle for his niece Junko Fuji, which proved successful enough to generate a total of eight sequels, most of them either scripted or supervised by Suzuki. He also directed the second film in the series (ranked as one of the best entries by Chris D’s Gun & Sword), and helmed two spin-offs starring a popular supporting character from the series, one of which bears the alluring translated title ‘Silk Hat Boss: The Short-Moustached Bear’.

I’ve yet to dig into the ‘Red Peony Gambler’ films (I have the first two buried somewhere in the ‘to watch’ pile), but from what I’ve read, they are often seen as breaking new ground in regard to allowing their female heroine to single-handedly hold her own in action sequences and sword fights, and have been singled out by several writers as a key influence on the veritable explosion of female action films and ‘pinky violence’ exploiters that followed over the next few years.

Viewed in hindsight after several years of watching every example of the form that I can get my hands on (I have no regrets.. well, maybe one or two, but let’s move on..), it’s easy to see the development of the Sukeban/Pinky Violence sub-genre as a bit of an arms race when it comes to the inclusion of sleaze and violence. Nikkatsu’s ‘Stray Cat Rock’ films, excellent and hard-hitting though the best entries may be, were relatively restrained in this regard, initially pitched more as youth / rock music films, and thus Toei’s competing ‘Delinquent Girl Boss’ series starring Reiko Oshida upped the ante, with a greater emphasis on organised crime and revenge-orientated action. These in turn were rendered thoroughly mild in comparison to the successor series Toei cooked up to replace them, and it is here that we meet Norifumi-san again, as he begins the astonishing run of films that would really put him on the map for fans of insane cinema with the staggering outburst of high octane deviancy that is Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack (1971).

As I’ve written extensively about that film before, I won’t repeat myself, but will simply say that if you’re unfamiliar with these ‘Girl Boss’ movies then, brace yourself, because they’re quite an experience. Suzuki directed three sequels to ‘Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’, all presumably thrown together at great speed, as very much befits his guerrilla film-making style: ‘Queen Bee’s Challenge’, ‘Girl Boss Guerrilla’ (both 1972) and the succinctly titled ‘Sukeban’ (aka ‘Girl Boss: Revenge’, 1973). All of these feature incredible moments and are well worth tracking down if you liked the first one, but their habit of slavishly reiterating the same formula and plot elements time after time means that the law of diminishing returns inevitably comes into play, and by the end of the fourth film, I think it was high time for the director to pull down the shutters and move on.

One of the most distinctive elements of the ‘Girl Boss’ films is their capacity to pull off jarring shifts in tone, as each follows a similar pattern of opening with half an hour or so of light-hearted action and bawdy sex comedy antics, before taking a darker turn for a middle section of yakuza-instigated violence and sexual humiliation, then pulling things together for a surprisingly serious final act that often takes in moments of genuine character development and emotional catharsis – a combination of conflicting elements that went on to define the uneasy ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it’ approach to the portrayal of women that underpins all of Suzuki’s best films.

In parallel with the Sukeban films, Suzuki also directed a number of period-set sex films for Toei (including ‘The Lustful Shogun and His 21 Concubines’ and ‘Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord’, both 1972), and these two threads of his work came together (so to speak) in 1973 to create what is arguably the director’s masterpiece, and probably one of the greatest exploitation films ever made (IMHO), ‘Ocho: Tale of a Rebellious Elder Sister’, better known in the West under the wholly appropriate title Sex & Fury.

Whether planned as a blood & boobs enhanced update of the ‘Red Peony Gambler’ formula, or as a middle-finger aimed at Toho’s ‘Lady Snowblood’ films (both speculation on my part), there is little doubt that ‘Sex & Fury’ is simply fucking brilliant, succeeding on every level that a film like this could conceivably aim at. From the moment Reiko Ike leaps naked from her bathtub to bloodily slaughter an army of yakuza, your jaw will hit the floor, and will likely remain there through most of the running time, as a positively epic array of libidinous mayhem unfolds, all of it realised in a vibrant and confident, pop-art infused cinematic style that matches and perhaps even surpasses that of subversive Japanese pop-cinema godhead Seijun Suzuki, whilst at the same time, a deep and conflicted dialogue about the nature of Japan’s place in the modern world sizzles away in the background. Just astonishing.

And, rounding out Norifumi’s phenomenally busy schedule during these years, we find yet another utterly raging series of transgressive and/or despicable bad girl focussed movies: the ‘Terrifying Girls’ High School’ series. Actually, our man only directed the first two of these four films, and thus far I’ve only managed to find one of them in sub-titled form, but boy is it a winner. Along with ‘Sex & Fury’, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom gets my vote for Suzuki’s best film, a cranked up chronicle of blood-curdling depravity, delinquent sisterhood and alternate world WIP weirdness that takes the anti-authoritarian streak that was bubbling under in the director’s earlier films and explodes it into a hellish howl in the face of official corruption, unthinking nationalism and societal conformity, culminating in a full-scale riot that plays out like Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’ as reimagined by Koji Wakamatsu, complete with a burning Japanese flag and riot police being beaten down by mini-skirted sukeban warriors.

Another theme that seems to run deeply through all the Norifumi Suzuki films I’ve seen is the mockery and general subversion of religious imagery, and that of Christianity in particular. I don’t know whether or not Suzuki was raised a Christian, but the fascination/repulsion with such imagery that he seems to crowbar into just about all of his films would certainly suggest as much, even as the disrespectful treatment frequently dished out to representatives of Buddhism and Shinto signposts a wider problem with organised religion in general. The ‘Girl Boss’ films overflow with hypocritical priests of all persuasions being blackmailed and humiliated, and both ‘Sex & Fury’ and ‘The Great Chase’ (1975) feature their heroines squaring off against corrupt, knife-wielding nuns. Even when the storyline doesn’t allow for any explicit reiteration of this theme, Suzuki, like Ken Russell, always seems to find room for this personal bugbear of his: in ‘Lynch Law Classroom’, Miki Sugimoto’s character is “the boss with the cross”, whilst the best sequence in the otherwise religion-free ‘Girl Boss: Revenge’ finds Reiko Ike attacking a yakuza boss with a crucifix-shaped flick-knife.

This all leads on of course to discussing ‘School of the Holy Beast’, perhaps Suzuki’s best known film for many in the West, although to be honest, I don’t have much to say about it right now, simply because I haven’t seen it since that aforementioned cinema screening all those years ago, and I don’t remember much about it beyond an all-pervasive feeling of sado-masochismic confinement and a strong blue & red colour scheme. Neither ‘nunsploitation’ or ‘women in chains’ movies are really my thing, so I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the idea of revisiting it, although I have a DVD-rip on hand somewhere that I’ll probably get around to at some point.

In the mid-‘70s, as the productivity of the Japanese popular film industry plummeted, Suzuki played a role in Toei’s post-‘Streetfighter’ shift toward making martial arts & pure action films aimed at an international market, providing characteristically barmy scripts for Sister Streetfighter (1974) and the surely-that-title-can’t-be-literal? Sonny Chiba vehicle ‘Karate Bullfighter’ (1977).

In 1975, he moved a little bit closer to the mainstream with ‘The Great Chase’, a ludicrous action-fest in which ‘Sister Streetfighter’ star Etsuko Shihomi plays a champion racing driver who is also a master-of-disguise secret agent on the trail of an international drug gang. I actually watched this one a few weeks ago, and whilst I think it is categorically impossible for a film with that plotline to fail to be a whole lot of fun, somehow it never quite gets it together to become as great as it rightfully should be. It still features a few outstanding moments of full-on Norifumi craziness that I won’t spoil for you here, and rips along at the director’s usual breakneck pace, but at the same time, the standard of his filmmaking seems to have slipped a lot in comparison to the masterpieces of just a couple of years earlier, and audience interest and suspense frequently evaporates into a mass of “y’know, this shit just makes no sense whatsoever”-style sloppiness. A B+ movie where it should have been an A+, if you get my drift, which is unfortunate for Shihomi, because she is AWESOME in this, and really deserved to be a bigger  international star, if only she’d got the breaks.

In the second half of the decade, Suzuki’s energies were largely ploughed into another of his creations, the Torakku Yarō (rough translation: ‘Truck Rascals’) series of comedies, which proved one of Toei’s most lucrative hits during this difficult period. More mainstream that anything else the director had done up to this point, these movies star yakuza film icon Bunta Sugawara and comedian Shinichiro Sawai as a pair of roughneck dudes travelling around Japan in garishly decorated articulated trucks. I’m not really sure what else happens, but one suspects that ‘hilarity’ probably ensues, with the kind of puerile antics seen in the first halves of the Sukeban movies perhaps taking precedence. Norifumi directed ten of ‘em between 1975 and 1979, anyhow.

If 1979 however, perhaps tiring of light-weight comedy, he flew way back in the opposite direction with the notorious ‘Star of David: Beautiful Girl Hunting’, a serial killer / rape n’ torture themed movie that holds legendary status amongst fans of that sort of extreme fare, although again, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to back away from it mumbling my usual “um.. sorry, I just don’t really like that kind of thing..” excuses.

Suzuki continued to write and direct intermittently through the ‘80s, with late career highlights including another Chiba / Shihomi actioner ‘Roaring Fire’ (1982), and ‘Shogun’s Ninja’ (1980), also with Chiba & Shihomi, his contribution to the brief vogue for all-star wuxia-style historical fantasy movies kicked off by Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘The Shogun’s Samurai’ in 1978. (I have this one on a bootleg DVD multi-pack, in a cropped, dubbed form so horrible I can scarcely bear to watch it.)

Norifumi-san’s last film as director was the little-known ‘Bimbari High School’, which appeared in 1990, and which, in a nice bit of circle-closing synchronicity, was produced by his fellow bad boy of Japanese cinema, Koji Wakamatsu – a heart-warming example perhaps of the commercial meeting the avant garde, united by a joint love of sex, violence and radical fervour.

By this point, I hope I’ve gone some way toward demonstrating what an absolute legend of crazed cinema Norifumi Suzuki was, and how widely the influence of his legacy can be felt (for better or for worse), both in Japan and elsewhere. For reasons outlined above, I think we can probably assume he wasn’t a man who held much of a belief in the afterlife, nor placed a great deal of value on peace and tranquillity, so let’s instead perhaps hope he’s now enjoying an explosive, kick-ass, kinky sex-filled eternity somewhere out there in the cosmic firmament. R.I.P.V., perhaps?


“As far as movies go, I don't think they're built to last for posterity. And that's exactly what gives movies their value. Because they're in total sync with the era in which they were created. So... I think they're similar to fireworks. All they have to do is linger in the minds of those who saw them.

In my case, they're no masterpieces, so I never thought there'd be people still watching 10, 20 years later. Never crossed my mind! Still, I guess you could say... how should I put it? When you set out to create something, of course the process of making it is enjoyable in itself, but you have to ask yourself, Just what does it mean to be human? Or...what makes us go on living? And that's what I always tried to keep in mind whenever I made a film. And when you come right down to it, is life something that's worth living? That's what it all boils down to. Always. And the answer is yes, it is worth living. No matter how wretched that life may be.”


Elliot James said...

Have you seen this (English subtitles)

Ben said...

Hey Elliot, thanks for the link!

I'm pretty sure that's the interview I've quoted from the transcript of in the post, but can't check at the moment cos I'm at work...

Elliot James said...

I've never seen Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom