Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Opening Gambits: Suzuki's Kanto Wanderer and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards

Both Kanto Wanderer and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards were made in 1963, during director Seijun Suzuki's most prolific period. It's well known that he was getting bored with making stock yakuza films, and that he was beginning to dismantle the yakuza film's visual and generic conventions. This would find its fullest flowering a couple of years later, but these two films are an interesting example of the director beginning to chafe at the bit. The difference in these films is immediately apparent from their opening scenes, which are what concern me here.

Go to Hell Bastards is the more conventional of the two, but it has interesting characteristics. Suzuki tends to avoid close-ups in his opening. Most of it is master shots. But not all. The first shot is a medium two-shot of an American soldier:

Then cut to a few master shots:

The first real close-up of the movie. Note, that it's not a close up of a human being:

Cut to a couple of medium two-shots:

Then back to master shots for the mayhem that opens the movie:

Most of the interiors of the remainder of the movie are filmed from a dramatic distance, like this shot:

Even the close-ups start from a distance. This medium two-shot dollies in close for a striking face-off:

But a lot of the film is at arms length. These two shots are typical:

Well, so what? Let's compare this opening with the opening of Kanto Wanderer, which starts with a close-up:

And then another:

And then another:

And then another:

And then another:

And then another:

And so on, with the duration of each shot getting shorter and shorter. This is a mildly disorienting sequence for two reasons: one, we have no context for these characters. These are the VERY first shots of the movie. Second, Suzuki has unhitched them from their environments. We are looking so closely at these faces, we don't have any idea of where they are and why they are there.

What I think is going on in these movies is this: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards is exactly the kind of movie Suzuki was beginning to get bored with, and, as a result, he has adopted a cinematic idiom of distance. He doesn't really care about his characters, so he puts them at arm's length. He's deadpanning. In Kanto Wanderer, he's beginning to see the expressive potential of cinema, and he starts to experiment--not too much yet, but enough. I don't think the similarity between the title of Kanto Wanderer and Suzuki's later Tokyo Drifter is an accident. They explore the same kinds of existential anomie, but they ALSO share an exploration of cinema as abstraction. In any event, watching these two movies back to back is like watching the light bulb go off in the director's head.

1 comment:

Bob Turnbull said...

I had never noticed that similarity between "Kanto Wanderer" and "Tokyo Drifter" before...I have to revisit KW again - I know I liked it a great deal, but just those opening shots are jogging some details back.

I think I see a bit more experimentation in "Detective Bureau", but you're right - it's more with the technical aspects than with anything character or story related (though I think he does use visual cues for certain pieces of information).

Nice write-up...