Tuesday, April 1, 2008

REVIEW: Zigeunerweisen - Seijun Suzuki (1980)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Most of you probably know the famous story about how in 1968 Seijun Suzuki was fired from Nikkatsu for what they saw as the confusing, surreal mess that was “Branded to Kill”. After being shown the door Suzuki languished in relative obscurity for the next decade, occasionally picking up some TV work, but besides that he says that he spent the better part of the 70’s retired. It wasn’t until he got backing from theatre producer Genjiro Arato that he returned to major motion picture work with his two and a half hour, independently produced and distributed epic, “Zigeunerweisen” (1980); a confusing, surreal mess that did the opposite of getting him fired from a major studio; after touring major Japanese film markets in a tent(!) it won best film and best director at both the Japanese Academy Awards and the coveted Kinema Junpo Awards. It also spawned to other related films that would eventually form Suzuki’s “Taisho Trilogy” (of which the two other films will be reviewed here in the next few weeks).

Based on the book by “The Song of Sarasate” by Japanese novelist Hyakken Uchida the story is set in the early part of the 20th century (The Taisho Era of course) and follows the duo of conservative Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a professor of German, always dressed in Western-style suits, and wild Nakasogo (Yoshio Harada), dressed in traditional kimono, who confesses to the murder of his wife during the first few minutes of the film. These two polar opposites fall in love with the same woman, O-Ine (Naoko Otani), a geisha who is grieving the loss of her husband. This being a Suzuki film the story slips and slides around and eventually O-Ine dies and is replaced by her doppelganger, a woman named Sono (also played by Otani) whom Nagasoko marries, while possibly having an affair with Aochi’s wife, Shuko (Michiyo Ōkusu). While the various romantic permutations of Aochi, Nakasogo and O-Ine, Sono, Shuko play themselves out Suzuki throws in a trio of blind minstrels, a father, son and their lover who keep appearing to sing bawdy songs and act as a chorus to the strange goings on. Oh, and Aochi might be dead… but I’m not sure.

Anyone who has followed Suzuki’s career knows that his recent work has sacrificed narrative for mood and image, and “Zigeunerweisen” truly marks the start of the phase of his work. While there is a slight narrative that can be followed by the perceptive and the patient things continually are tripped up by the use of dream logic and imagery. This may frustrate a great many viewers, especially due to the length of the film, but for me who kept a dream journal for quite some time, the film was a fascinating look at how closely dreams mirror the cinematic experience. Reality progresses from A to B, no edits, no close-ups, and it often suffers from a glut of the mundane while dreams, like film, are always jumping from one scene to another, sometimes forwards in time, sometimes backwards. Dreams are our own private cinema with stories ripe with symbol and mystery. I think it’s a very brave move for a director to make dream logic and dream narrative such an important part of their film(s).

Now as to the real meaning behind “Zigeunerweisen”… I can’t say there really is one, or at least one definitive meaning. As my therapist always said, “You can’t interpret dreams with dream dictionary. It’s the feelings that they bring up that are their real meaning,” and if that’s the case then I could go with psychological platitudes and say that “Zigeunerweisen” is a meditation on the relations between men and women and between our own conflicting intellectual and libidinous sides that live in all of us. In the end it would be best to watch it and make your own decisions.

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