Following a professional trajectory similar to that of Kurosawa Akira, Suzuki Seijun (1923-2017) made his comeback from Nikkatsu’s murky dismissal with Zigeunerweisen (1980), the highly stylised first instalment of what will be later referred to as Suzuki’s Taishō trilogy. However, both Kurosawa and Suzuki’s artistic hiatus in the 70s didn’t quite mean they stopped filming completely. After two decades of intense activity, which was forced to a halt following the abrupt ending of Suzuki’s contract with Nikkatsu – the Japanese film studio that will later become famous for its production of pinku eiga (softcore porno films) – Suzuki’s only release in the 70s is A Tale of Sadness and Sorrow (1977), a sordid social satire revolving around a model turned professional golf player.
Mostly known for the numerous B-movies he worked on while at Nikkatsu – after a brief stint at Shochiku where he worked as an assistant director/scriptwriter, Suzuki migrated to Nikkatsu in 1954 to become a full-fledged director in roughly two years – Suzuki soon became associated with eclectic genre films whose formal experimentalism peaked with Branded to Kill (1967). The film is an absurdist yakuza thriller with distinct visuals that recall the style of gekiga – a type of manga that is drawn more realistically – as Yomota Inuhiko notes in What is Japanese Cinema? (Columbia University Press, 2019). Although Branded to Kill is now considered one of Japanese cinema’s cult titles, it almost cost Suzuki his career. At the time, it was common to consider Suzuki an eccentric director who made almost incomprehensible films, but it’s with his Taishō trilogy that Suzuki truly lives up to his reputation.
The most apparent fil rouge stitching the films together is their period setting. Each of the films completing the trilogy – Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za (both 1981), and Yumeji (1991) – is set in the Taishō period (1912-1926), a brief era marked by the continuation of Japan’s rise on the international scene and still untouched by the militaristic tide of early Shōwa (1926-1989). In these films, politics is largely left out of the frame, although Suzuki’s social and political awareness is perceptible as much as it is in most of his early films. A fixation on the aesthetics of the time is otherwise predominant and sits in perfect continuation with Suzuki’s early stylistic flourishes. This is particularly true for Yumeji, a loosely biographical take on the life of poet and painter Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934) and a spectral tale of love and artistic inspiration.
The plot is exceptionally thin, which contributes to the anecdotal structure the film eventually adopts. Yumeji (Sawada Kenji), now an accomplished and recognised artist, is betrothed to the timid and frail Hikono (Miyazaki Masumi) but, unsurprisingly, has the hots for his models. While travelling, he encounters a charming widow, Wakiya Tomoyo (Mariya Tomoko), who is looking for her husband’s body. Soon, a cohort of secondary characters join in, including Wakiya himself – or is it his ghost? – the bandit Onimatsu (Hasegawa Kazuhiko) and the model Oyo (Hirota Leona). Through oniric sequences, explosions of bold colours, and repeated tableaux vivants fixed against minutely recreated interiors, Yumeji progresses by indulging in its own decadent aesthetics.
Art is omnipresent, as Yumeji himself is always in the pursuit of true Beauty that he necessarily has to find in the sexualised bodies of his models/lovers. Nods to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt pop up in the most unusual places, like on a wooden column, or the side of a boat. These drawings of naked women not only place Yumeji in conversation with his Western peers but simultaneously also remind the viewer of the subaltern and passive role of women. Objects of the artistic gaze, women exist to be sketched and possessed. When agency seems to be eventually bestowed on them, it’s immediately made clear that whatever they think and whatever they do must always be in service of a man. Reduced to nothing more than harmless dolls, though occasionally they’re allowed to show a bit more bite, Hikono, Tomoyo, and Oyo gravitate toward Yumeji’s orbit, whose frustrations and fractured artistic identities, in contrast, often resemble the tantrums of a spoiled child.
Despite its overt egotism, Yumeji beguiles the viewer thanks to its singular aesthetic look which is also reflected in the film’s intelligent use of the Japanese traditional interior. As much as the film’s spaces respond to rigorous geometrical framing, the narrative structure progressively loses meaning – there’s virtually no interest for coherence nor for linear storytelling, and scenes are expressionistically edited together following a visual rather than thematic reasoning. And yet, Yumeji’s eccentricity is its selling point, one that marks the film – and the rest of the Taishō trilogy – as a testament to Suzuki’s creative ambition.
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