Review: Tattooed Life (1965)

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Tattooed Life (TL) is the first film I’ve seen from director Seijun Suzuki.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as his work is extremely divisive.  One camp declares him a genius while another says his films are incomprehensible.  I think neither group is correct in this case.  Suzuki was merely a very talented B-movie director with enough chutzpah to ignore prevailing trends and indulge his own desire to make more surreal fare than was fashionable at the time.

“Tattooed Life” refers to life in the yakuza.  Japanese gangsters traditionally cover their bodies in tattoos.  That’s why people sporting tatts are banned from some places in Japan.  TL begins as a mainstream yakuza picture.  Set in the early Showa period, it revolves around the lives of two brothers.  Tetsu is a yakuza hitman.  His younger brother, Kenji, is an aspiring artist.  Their parents are long gone, leaving Tetsu to care for his brother.  He works hard to make sure Kenji gets a chance to go to art school and thereby stay out of the yakuza life that has consumed him, but all goes awry when a double-cross hit threatens Tetsu’s life in Kenji’s presence.  The younger man ends up killing Tetsu’s assailant and the damage is done.  The two must go on the run together if Tetsu is to keep his brother out of prison.  He wants to flee to Manchuria, but to get there, they need money and a connection to a boat captain.  They hide out as workers for a construction company and Kenji falls for the boss’ wife while Tetsu ends up with his daughter.  They’re eventually found out and they have to fight for their lives and the lives of their boss’ family.

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It sounds like standard Japanese cinema from the 60s, and it is to a certain degree.  The script is solid but it doesn’t offer anything unique beyond the setting.  What’s inspired is Suzuki’s use of mise-en-scene to reinforce the plight of his characters.  Those who think Suzuki is capable of nothing but visual pyrotechnics might want to take a look at the first three quarters of this film.  Tetsu isn’t presented as a cardboard cutout with “yakuza” stenciled across his face.  He’s a fully realized character with deep feelings for his brother and a well of respect for those who deserve it.

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It’s in the final minutes of the film that Suzuki’s reputation for surreal imagery is shown to be well-deserved.  A 10-minute-long fight sequence breaks all the rules and sends us into another world.  Suzuki employs color, innovative lighting, and interesting camera angles to produce an expressionistic battle.  It’s successful and visually exciting, but it doesn’t belong in this movie.  If only there were hints of the surreal throughout the entire film, this sequence wouldn’t be so jarring.  As it is, it stands out as if it were part of another feature.  It’s a shame because Suzuki shows himself to be adept at both classical film making and wildly imaginative visual jaunts.  With the right script, I’m sure the two could be used as contrasting colors in an impressive painting.

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The performances here are mostly top-notch.  There’s a touch of the vaudevillian in a couple of the characters, but that’s a stylistic choice that would have been correct for the era.  Even today, the Japanese audience enjoys extremely broad comedic styles.  I just find that those sorts of performances try my patience.

Music cues are sparse and unmemorable.  Composer Masayoshi Ikeda was a studio factory worker and he was punching musical notes out on an assembly line.  I’m glad there isn’t much music in this piece as the story hardly needs it.

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In collaborative works, it’s often hard to discern who was responsible for what, but I think it’s safe to say that cinematographer Kurataro Takamura certainly helped Suzuki achieve his vision.  These “B” movies were shot in record time in order to keep the budgets low.  It’s a testament to Takamura’s skill that a film like this looks so much like a big budget, prestige feature.

I truly enjoyed the story told in Tattooed Life and found the unique visuals to be engaging.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of Suzuki’s work.  Recommended.

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