Tim: Welcome back everybody, for the second installment of the incomparable Mike Phillips’s and my exploration of the films of Japanese crime film master Seijun Suzuki.
So, first the bad news: the film we promised you last time, the irresistibly-titled Young Breasts, turns out not to be available in the US, or at least not in a version that English speakers can get much use out of. In its place, we’re skipping ahead a little bit to one of his films from 1963, with an even more irresistible title: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards. This one is about Tajima, played by Suzuki’s frequent collaborator Jo Shishido, who is not terribly young and – alas! – does not have breasts, but is the proprietor of Detective Bureau 2-3, which seems to consist of no-one but himself, a hapless assistant, and a sarcastic girl Friday. Their primary business model is to find incriminating snippets of blackmail, until Tajima manages to sweet-talk his way in with the local police agency to let him run a major operation to infilitrate the local yakuza organization, starting with his staged rescue of Manabe, a mid-level gangster (other than Shishido, it’s not terribly easy to match up roles and actors), from a stand-off involving two gangs, one armed with samurai swords and one with machine guns. From that point, he works his way ever closer to the yakuza boss, despite never actually convincing anyone that he’s completely above-board, and…
Oh, but this film really just isn’t about the twists in its narrative, though, is it? It’s about a dude fighting yakuza at a million miles an hour, with 90 minutes of one absurd set piece after another flying off the screen. I can’t help myself: I completely loved it. Right from the the opening scene, in which a small army springs out of a Pepsi truck to ambush an arms deal, scored by energetic ’50s-style jazz, this is such a flat-out fun movie. And surprisingly – at least, surprising to me – campy. For example, this is a crime movie wherein, for no real reason, we suddenly find ourselves watching a musical number (in fact, we find ourselves doing so on a number of different occasions). It’s not just that Suzuki wants to keep the action buzzing along at a fast clip, and so keeps the film full of incident; that’s to be expected. It’s almost like the action always had to be the goofiest thing that he could think of, whether or not it was particularly well-motivated by the plot. It never gets quite as shockingly outlandish as that first song-and-dance scene, but throughout, it’s such a silly movie, in such an entertaining way.
I could go on a lot further in that direction, but I’m going to kick it over to Mike now: what was the first thing that jumped out at you?
Mike:Don’t worry too much, folks. I fast-forwarded through Young Breasts, and saw nary a young breast. Besides, I think Jo Shishido’s hamster cheeks, reportedly puffed out with collagen implants, are a worthy replacement.
To answer your question, the first thing that jumped out was how it all works so perfectly according to its own demented logic—the logic of maximum volume and effect. Why did the hitmen in the opening scene conceal themselves in a Pepsi truck toting thousands of glass bottles? It’s simple: so the bottles would shatter in a dazzling explosion of glass shards and foam when the machine guns started firing. Those musical numbers you pointed out are a perfect example, and they work much like numbers in a “real” musical: the characters onscreen build to such emotional heights that the can’t help but break out in song. Here, it makes perfect sense for Shishido to jump up and do a little song-and-dance (surprisingly well!) because we’ve just had to endure a tense few minutes of his fear of having his cover blown. More logic: the hundreds of gangsters surrounding the police station, like something out of Assault on Precinct 13, are armed to the teeth and obviously waiting to kill a prisoner they think is a snitch, but because they possess valid hunting licenses, there’s nothing the cops can do about it. It’s completely ridiculous, but because everyone accepts it with a straight face, it’s hilarious.
My overall favorite thing is that the deadly impeccable logic is carried to structural extremes: well over half the running time is devoted to the gangsters attempts to find out if Shishido is a cop and the cops’ efforts to conceal that fact. Both sides go waaaaay beyond the call of duty, escalating things into a game of proto-Spy vs. Spy “gotcha!” Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have blown Shishido’s cover, but then again Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have planned it either.
But the most important question, one that this film leave tantalizingly unanswered, is this: what the bloody hell happened to Seijun Suzuki in the five years since Underworld Beauty? (Aside from making nineteen  films, of course.) Those tentative steps, those inklings of the Suzuki form we saw in the earlier film are in full, mature form here, and I, too, was completely blown away. It’s so incredibly assured, encompassing flawlessly executed action setpieces, broad physical comedy, unbearable tension, bawdy visual jokes (my favorite: when the boss’s girlfriend tells Shishido that the boss is impotent, they’re surrounded by construction cranes), utter joyful nonsense (the party girls in bikinis dancing around a Christmas tree to “When the Saints Go Marching In”) Gone (mostly) is the noir-ish seriousness and mood of Underworld Beauty; in its place is a funnier James Bond movie, or a more artistic Our Man Flint, or an Austin Powers that can be taken seriously. Seven years into his directing career, he started making films that couldn’t possibly come from anyone else.
Tim: I’m glad to hear that I wasn’t alone in wondering how this could possibly be the work of the same man who did Underworld Beauty . If that was a somewhat inventive and edgy but ultimately typical crime flick, this is… God, I don’t even quite know what it is. You have more experience with Suzuki than I, so I’ll defer to you on this point, but I thought it was if anything even crazier than I’d been led to believe.
What it reminded me of, even more than a James Bond or Derek Flint film (though it certainly did; and it’s worth pointing out, I think, that Flint hadn’t appeared yet, nor can I imagine that Bond had made his presence felt in Japan), was actually Airplane! That’s not perfectly appropriate, of course, because it isn’t a straight-up comedy, no matter how much you or I laughed; but I got the same sense of a kitchen-sink mentality guiding the whole affair, sort of a “let’s make sure that every idea that comes down the pike gets crammed into the film somewhere” thing. Which is by no means a complaint, because it results in some of the most magically oddball things I’ve seen in a movie for ages. The Christmas tree dance, you’ve mentioned; and while I know you’re elliptically referring to the weird sequence where the Tajima somehow convinces a rural Catholic priest to pose as his estranged father, I think it’s worth calling attention to it just on the grounds that it’s pretty much amazing.
If I may set all of this aside for now, though, we haven’t even started to talk about how the film was shot and cut. Sure, it’s well and good to have all of these immensely, pleasurably silly and over the top comic bits and action scenes, but a major part of what gives Detective Bureau 2-3 its special kick is Suzuki’s playfulness behind the camera. There’s one shot early on that I actually rewound and watched a couple of times in a row, just to gawk at in in awe; Tajima and the police chief are facing off in a battle of wills, and the camera zooms in quickly to underscore the dramatic tension of the moment – but it goes too far, and both men’s heads are partially bisected by the edge of the frame. Which rather tends to cancel out the dramatic tension, but since we already know that Tajima is going to win, I’m okay with letting Suzuki go nuts.
Or Manabe’s girlfriend’s apartment, which for no damn reason whatsoever is lit with urgent candy apple red and bright yellow. It’s gorgeous, and absolutely memorable, and it is completely unmotivated by anything in the diegesis. He’s breaking all sorts of rules, is basically what I mean to say, and largely just because he can. I shouldn’t admire that, but I really do.
Mike:I can’t believe I forgot to mention the color. Our first foray into Suzuki-land was in noirish black and white, but this film explodes with color (often literally). I noticed that candy-apple red you admired in Manabe’s girlfriend’s apartment throughout the film; it was used so deliberately to set things apart from the basic gray of this cops-n-robbers world that I rewatched half of the film to see if there was some pattern or meaning to it. I couldn’t find one, but it could be that it’s just yelling “Hey, look at this!” which in itself is a laudable message to send. I loved it in that apartment, but most memorable for me was the weird pseudo-mod jazz bar where everything is bright red stripes and the walls are covered with misspelled titles of American musicals (“Pal Toey” being my favorite).
But back to your question about the shooting and editing. I noticed several of those attention-grabbing— I almost said “miscues,” and I might brand them as mistakes in another filmmaker’s work, but I feel like underneath all the visual mayhem, Suzuki was in completely control. I mean, at one point during the finale on the docks, a truck bursts through a door and then bumps into the camera, jostling it off-center, but Suzuki kept rolling, and he left that shot in the finished product. And there’s another example similar to the one you mentioned, just before the big ambush at the scrapyard: Manabe and Tajima are in the backseat of a car, and the camera moves out the back passenger side door, around the car in herky-jerky movements, and stops with Tajima in the center of the frame and Manabe cut in half on the left side. They talk, and in the middle of a sentence, the camera shifts a bit so we get a more traditionally framed Hollywood two-shot. It looks like an error, but it’s such fun that it had to be somehow deliberate. Right? It sounds odd to argue that, since I wouldn’t make such allowances for a filmmaker I didn’t love so much.
I’m especially enamored of the way he shoots his action scenes. He tends to eschew closeups, going instead for exquisitely framed long shots, sometimes extreme long shots, that artfully arrange the characters into tableaux in which the setting is more than just background: the shocking shooting in Manabe’s girlfriend’s red-and-yellow apartment, the action in the girder- and crate-filled basement, etc. I found myself wondering if it had something to do with kabuki theater or some other Japanese reference point that eluded me, but maybe our numerous readers and commenters can enlighten us on that.
Next up: a cabal of prostitutes in post-war Japan!
Previously in this series: