feat

Underworld Beauty

Ever since his rediscovery, it seems like Seijun Suzuki has had the term “Maverick Director” permanently affixed to his name like some kind of mandatory honorific. However, given the rigidity of the Japanese studio system within which he spent his peak years, Suzuki never would have had the opportunity to achieve that maverick status had he not at some point been able to tow the line and deliver the straightforward genre pictures that he had been hired to create. That he was capable of doing that and then some is more than amply demonstrated by Underworld Beauty, an outstanding little noir programmer that he directed during his early years at Nikkatsu.

Underworld Beauty was Suzuki’s seventh film for Nikkatsu. He had come to the studio in 1954, lured from his job as an assistant director at Shochiku by the promises of higher pay and rapid advancement that Nikkatsu, then emerging from a decade-plus production hiatus, was offering in order to draw fresh creative talent into its ranks. Once there, he began work as an assistant director to, among others, Hiroshi Naguchi, who was a pioneering director of contemporary crime dramas at the studio. Once Suzuki moved on to helming films on his own – working, as he would throughout his tenure at Nikkatsu, from scripts that were assigned to him by the studio – his former association with Naguchi resulted in his higher-ups entrusting him with much the same type of crime pictures as those his mentor had been known for. This ended up working to Suzuki’s advantage, as, within several years time, Nikkatsu would be devoting the majority of its resources to producing modern-day urban crime thrillers, establishing their own brand identity under the “Nikkatsu Action” banner.

If you’re one of those many aspiring young filmmakers who, in order to get that cherished foot in the industry door, would sacrifice an eye to have a non-paying job fetching lattes for unappreciative studio functionaries, Seijun Suzuki’s characteristically blasé recountings of his beginnings in film would probably be a tad frustrating. This, however, just seems to be the man’s way; as, based on the interviews I’ve read with him, he seems to have an almost pathological need to downplay every aspect of his career. According to him, he was never more than a conscientious hired hand while at Nikkatsu, and was simply doing his best to perform the tasks to which he had been assigned. As this version would have it, even his most controversial directorial decisions were made in pursuit of entirely pragmatic narrative ends, and are only perceived as being subversive – or having some greater symbolic intent behind them – by observers who are reading too much into them. In keeping with this, Suzuki apparently never even had ambitions to work in film, and only signed on for an apprenticeship at Shochiku after he failed the entrance exam for Tokyo University’s engineering program – much in the way, I imagine, that you or I might go after a real estate license or paralegal certificate in the face of our more high-minded dreams not panning out.

Whatever the case, though, the fact is that, while he would later be branded by his masters at Nikkatsu as a troublemaker – and would eventually confirm that designation in spectacular fashion with his brain-boggling La Samourai-meets-Eraserhead final opus for the studio, Branded To Kill – Suzuki did spend the majority of his time under their banner dutifully turning out a string of reliably well-crafted potboilers. And while those films may not be as challenging or thrillingly subversive as his later work, many of them are every bit as enjoyable for Suzuki’s sure-handed craftsmanship and alluring visual style. Which, by way of illustration, brings me back to Underworld Beauty.

Nikkatsu described their brand of action films as “borderless”, which in part meant that, because of the great extent to which they were modeled upon American gangster and noir films, they did not exhibit a distinctly Japanese identity. However, there is, in fact, something very Japanese about Underworld Beauty. And that is how, with that uniquely Japanese eye for detail, it so expertly distills the noir sensibility to its very essence, cutting away any distracting nuances and reducing it to only the most potent elements of its visual iconography. In this sense – though perhaps out of different motivations – it bears some similarities to a far more well known film from the same year, Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil. In taking the visual aspects of the noir style to their very limits, both Underworld Beauty and Touch of Evil make obvious fetishes of the deep chiaroscuro compositions, expressionistic plays of shadow, and off-balance camera angles that most previous noir filmmakers had simply used as individual elements of a more varied palette. If, in Suzuki’s case, the director hadn’t also bothered to wrap all of that intoxicating style around an energetic and pleasingly compact narrative, Underworld Beauty would nonetheless be worth watching as a visual treat alone. But the fact that he did makes it that much more of a joy to behold.

The film focuses on the character of Miyamoto, a middle-aged tough guy who’s just finished serving a three-year prison sentence on a robbery conviction. As we see at the film’s opening, Miyamoto hid the three very large diamonds netted in that robbery before being sent up, and is now determined to turn them over to his friend and accomplice, Mihara, who, having been shot and crippled during the commission of the crime, now has to support himself and his kid sister with the money he makes running a humble noodle stand. Miyamoto is a classic film noir hero: A guy who, despite living outside the law, has an unswerving personal moral code, and whose stubborn determination to adhere to that code leads to him being completely isolated within the amoral world he inhabits. Its hard to imagine that Suzuki could have found a more fitting actor to play such an iconic character than Michitaro Mizushima, whose combination of imposing physical presence, laconic unflappability, and world weariness brings to mind nothing so much as a Japanese incarnation of Robert Mitchum, the greatest of all American noir leading men. As Miyamoto, Mizushima gives us a grizzled underdog who confronts each addition to the mountain of obstacles before him with a combination of bemused resignation and honor-bound resolve, as such making him a hero who’s hard not to root for.

One of the most intractable of those obstacles in Miyamoto’s path is the gang who hired him to do the robbery in the first place, a Yakuza cell lead by the unctuous Oyane. Ever the honorable thief – and knowing full well that Oyane and his gang already suspect him of holding the diamonds – Miyamoto goes to Oyane to plead his case for giving them to Mihara. Surprisingly, the boss agrees, and even offers to broker a deal between Mihara and some foreign buyers for the sale of the stones. Less surprisingly, however, he and his men then use the occasion of the handover of the diamonds as an opportunity to steal them back, with some of their number masquerading as members of a rival gang in order to hide Oyane’s involvement. A fight ensues, and poor Mihara ends up getting killed, though not before swallowing the much coveted diamonds. An antic quest to retrieve the gems follows, but this will turn out to be just one of Miyamoto’s problems; for, with Mihara gone, he now feels duty bound to look after his friend’s kid sister, a teenaged hellcat by the name of Akiko.

Although the publicity materials for Underworld Beauty feature photos of actress Mari Shiraki brandishing a machinegun while clad in black lingerie, the character that Shiraki plays in the picture is less a femme fatale than she is a carryover from the “Wild Youth” films that Nikkatsu was also making at the time. A sharp-tongued, hard drinking tomboy with a perpetual sneer on her face, Akiko doesn’t take kindly to Miyamoto’s stone-faced attempts at providing her with paternal guidance. But it is less Akiko’s belligerence that causes problems for Miyamoto than her lousy judgment. Akiko’s boyfriend – a shrill, cowardly type by the name of Arita, who works as a designer in a mannequin factory – turns out to also be an employee of Oyane, and has devious plans of his own when it comes to the diamonds. After a roundabout of skullduggery and betrayal, Miyamoto ultimately comes into possession of the stones again, at which point Oyane decides to use Akiko for leverage against him. This leads to some final act fireworks that see Miyamoto – as ever, alone against all – storming the Turkish bath where Akiko is being held prisoner in an attempt to free her.

While in many ways different in tone from those films that would come to be considered Suzuki’s signature works, Underworld Beauty also harbors a number of elements that presage them, not the least being the mordant humor that would more and more become one of the director’s trademarks. In this regard, the circumstance of the diamonds being ensconced within Mihara’s corpse offers a lot of opportunities for ghoulish comedy. Probably the most memorable examples of this are the attempts by Oyane and his men to hide their greed under a mask of concern for their departed comrade, with them going so far as to sponsor Mihara’s funeral so that they may more easily hover over his casket as it travels from one point to the next. Less characteristic is the lightly humorous tack that the film takes in portraying Miyamoto’s hapless relationship with Akiko, which is accentuated by some oddly whimsical musical cues from film composer Naozumi Yamamoto. This slight misstep aside, Yamamoto’s score is otherwise brilliant, especially in the case of the main theme, which augments the kind of strident orchestral arrangement typically heard in American noir films with the use of Theremin and other eerie-sounding electronic instruments more suited to the soundtrack of a Toho monster movie.

Underworld Beauty also bears the hallmarks of what would become Suzuki’s signature visual style, including his almost compulsive use of set elements as constricting framing devices within which to visually isolate his actors. The film was the directors first to be shot in widescreen, and he missed no opportunity to fill every inch of the screen with visual stimuli, often including ambient background action by way of images reflected in glass, or seen through strategically-placed apertures (windows, screens, hatchways) in the sets. Arita’s mannequin factory, in particular, offers opportunities for all kinds of expressionistic visuals, with a fight staged therein calling to mind a similar set piece from yet another noir milestone, Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 debut Killer’s Kiss.

In the end, Underworld Beauty is perhaps not as singular a viewing experience as Suzuki’s later, more idiosyncratic masterworks like Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter and Gate of Flesh, but it is nonetheless noteworthy. Watching it, you are reminded of just how rare and true are the pleasures of watching a simple, well-constructed story told with wit, economy, energy and style. I would go so far as to say that it is not only a great example of Japanese noir, but a great noir film period. Perhaps it’s not on the level of more epic or metaphorically freighted examples of the genre like Out of the Past or Kiss Me Deadly, but I would definitely put it in the same category as smaller gems like The Narrow Margin – films that are essentially potboilers, but whose masterful execution elevates them to the level of classics. Suzuki would probably disagree with me on this, of course. From his standpoint, I’m sure that he would say that he was just doing his job – and that any and all resulting signs of greatness were purely accidental.

Release Year: 1958 | Country: Japan | Starring: Michitaro Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Shinsuke Ashida, Toru Abe, Hideaki Nitani, Kiroshi Kondo, Kaku Takashina | Writer: Susumu Saji | Director: Seijun Suzuki | Cinematographer: Wataro Nakao | Music: Naozumi Yamamoto

6 thoughts on “Underworld Beauty”

  1. Great review!

    My theory about Suzuki is that he really needed the studio environment and the genre conventions to play with, if he’s going to admit to playing or not.
    I think that’s what my problem with his few non-corporate films is – they lack a sense of direction that suggests to me that Suzuki left to his own devices doesn’t really know what to do with this freedom, something I’d never say about his work for Nikkatsu.

  2. “Suzuki left to his own devices doesn’t really know what to do with this freedom,”

    Brilliantly put…..absolutely spot on.

    Looking back through the lens of Nikkatsu’s ’70′s output, it’s almost impossible to get one’s head around the fact that before about 1964, they were the most venerable and politically conservative of all the Japanese studios [the 'ni' in Nikkatsu is the same as the 'ni' in 'Nihon']. It’s hardly surprising that they railed against Suzuki when he began overdosing on Goddard and Fellini in the late-60′s…..but it was a set of pricks I think he needed to kick against in order to produce his most definitive work.

    I’ll stick my neck out a little here and suggest that it wasn’t merely Suzuki that the studio picked a bone with: it was the whole nouvelle vaugue concept of director-as-artist, or auteur. Nikkatsu (and for that matter, Toho and Daiei and the rest) were adamant that directors should be skilled craftsmen working as part of an industrial unit (for the record, a system that I have no complaint with), and the idea of directors in charge of their own projects was not a terribly welcome one. I always have the idea in my mind of Suzuki and Nikkatsu being like two cops in an ’80′s buddy movie: can’t stand the sight of each other, but uproot mountains when they work together.

  3. Both of your points about Suzuki needing that imposed structure ring very true to me. I’d mark as Exhibit “A” to that argument his independently made “remake” of Branded to Kill, Pistol Opera, which struck me as being a meandering, formless mess.

    I also think there’s a lot to be said for Prof. K’s suggestion that Nikkatsu was anti-auteur. I would think such a mindset would go hand-in-hand with the idea of having “branded” genres — i.e “Nikattsu Action”, “New Action”, “Roman Porno”, etc. By doing that, you’re encouraging your audience to depend on you for providing a very specific type of experience, and as a result would want to exert strong top-down control to keep the product fairly uniform.

  4. And yet – and I’ll agree with you both about Nikkatsu (if not all Japanese studios of the time) being anti-auteur – the better directors still managed to put their individuality into their films. That’s probably the part of this style of film making I find most fascinating; the friction between the studio’s expectations and the director’s ambition producing what is best about the films.

  5. ” the better directors still managed to put their individuality into their films”

    House, I don’t think we’re even disagreeing here. My point was that, whilst allowing directors a lot of latitude and input, the Japanese studio system considered them to be Skilled Workers, and not Artists; this, of course, was at a time when the question at large was ‘what exactly is the distinction between an art object, a craft object and a produced object’ (OK, you can trace this argument back to the Bauhaus, or the Soviet constructivists, or even William Morris or Wedgwood….who were themselves influenced by traditional Japanese decorative arts (woodblock prints, raku-glazed ceramics) My goodness if it doesn’t all come full-circle….)

    And I’d go on to add that I think that auteur-ish directors are almost always better with a guiding hand on their shoulders, and not just Japanese studio directors. Think of, let’s say, how Antonioni went from a beautifully tight and concise little film like “Blow-Up” to the the shapeless, obese vanity-wank of “Zabriskie Point”. That’s the most extreme example I can come up with, but I bet you’ve got your own ;)

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