Sunday, February 27, 2011

REVIEW: Underworld Beauty

暗黒街の美女 (Ankokugai no bijo)

Released: 1958

Seijun Suzuki

Michitaro Mizushima
Mari Shiraki
Shinsuke Ashida
Toru Abe
Hideaki Nitani

Running time: 87 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

The now-legendary Seijun Suzuki was still relatively new to the filmmaking game when he made "Underworld Beauty" – he had only directed his first film two years previous in 1956. It seems fitting that, just as he was getting started on his path to becoming one of the key figures of the Japanese New Wave, other directors elsewhere in the world were exploring fresh alternatives to cinematic conventions. The late 1950s and early 1960s are particularly notable for being the first years of the French New Wave, and produced such integral works as Jean-Pierre Melville’s "Bob le flambeur" (1956) and Jean-Luc Godard’s "Breathless" (1960). As in those films, "Underworld Beauty" indicates the strong influence of the American crime genre, which in many cases (including Suzuki’s) served as an appealing jumping point towards bold new directions.

The film begins shortly after the release of gruff con Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) from prison. He goes to a hiding place within the sewers from which he retrieves a pistol and a small pouch containing three valuable diamonds. He wants to pass along the gems to Mihara, a friend who took part in their theft three years previous. The heist ultimately ended badly for both men, even though they got the loot – Miyamoto went to jail while Mihara was crippled. Yakuza Boss Oyane, upon learning of Miyamoto’s freedom, plans to seize the diamonds for himself. A botched attempt to sell them leads to Mihara swallowing the stones. After he dies from fatal injuries, his sister Akiko (Mari Shiraki) and her shifty boyfriend Arita both become involved in the frantic, greed-fuelled fight for the valuable prizes within Mihara’s stomach.

In true noir fashion, "Underworld Beauty" is filled with scores of morally questionable characters – though beneath his tough guy exterior, Miyamoto is an honorable man who only wants to help his old, unlucky partner in crime. Arita is much less sympathetic as he stoops to despicable depths in order to claim the valuable loot. A rogue’s gallery of gangsters and minions fill out the film’s sleazy ecosystem, but the person who easily warrants the most attention is Akiko. Exuding sensuality and spunk to spare, she holds her own against the men continually around her while keeping her best interests in mind. Especially entertaining to watch is her playfully combative relationship with Miyamoto, who she calls “old man” and resents for getting her brother involved in criminal affairs while he persistently tries to look after her. Whether partying in rowdy jazz clubs, pushing aside her grief for her brother to go drinking with an American sailor or pausing in mid-chase to give a child money for candy, Akiko adds hearty doses of fun and energy to the film’s hard-boiled proceedings.

Though "Underworld Beauty" is a very handsomely made film, it is clear that, at the time of its making, Suzuki had yet to become the innovative auteur responsible for the feast of colors in "Gate of Flesh," experimental effects in "Story of a Prostitute" and extravagant sets in "Tokyo Drifter." However, there are still plenty of memorable sequences to be impressed by, starting with Miyamoto’s first appearance on a shadowy street and his subsequent descent into the inky darkness of the sewers. Arita’s workplace, a combination of sculpting studio and mannequin factory, is a creepy setting filled with poised dummies and shelves of molded faces. Perhaps the most striking set piece is an intense shoot-out that ends in a sweltering boiler room, giving way to a visual onslaught of sweat, blood, water, coal and fire.

It could be said that "Underworld Beauty" occupies a spot in Suzuki’s career similar to that of "The Killing" in Stanley Kubrick’s. Both films being slick, pulpy thrillers that any director would be content to have in his or her filmography, they nonetheless only partially indicate the great heights in creativity and ambition that their respective creators would eventually reach.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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