Tattooed Life

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There are some pistols in Suzuki Seijun’s “Tattooed Life” 1965), which is set in 1926, but the main fight scene involves swords and a spearman. I think the Japanese title of the historical yakuza movie ” Irezumi Ichidai,” means ‘white fox tattoo, an elaborate tattoo that would instantly signal that Tetsu (Takahashi Hideki [who also starred in Suzuki’s 1966 “Fighting Elegy”]) was a yakuza.

At the start of the movie he kills a gang-leader and is set up by his own boss to be killed. His brother, art student Kenji (Hananomoto Kotobuki), followed the two rickshaws into the countryside and kills the yakuza who was supposed to kill Tetsu.

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The brothers (Tetsu has raised Kenji and provided for a different life than his own) are cheated out of passage to Manchuria and go off and find work in constructing a tunnel. Kenji is smitten by the boss’s wife (Itô Hiroko) whom he thinks resembles the mother he doesn’t remember, while her younger sister Midori (Izumi Masako) is smitten by Tetsu… and the past (the gang seeking revenge) cannot be escaped.

As in many Japanese movies, the beauties of nature alternate with overwrought emotions. (But in contrast to the long takes of coiled players, Suzuki used jump cuts.) The whole movie exists for the bravura fight that Suzuki show from above and below. And there is a rainstorm of Kurosawa proportions raging outside. Though visually flamboyant in comparison to most movies, Suzuki would go much further with “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill,” while neglecting to have the action make sense, that is provide a plot that viewers could follow. Other than the shots of the open sea, it seems like a western with frontier corruption and violence, saloon fights, drifters, and loyalties to a boss who gives the drifters a break (or four or five). There’s even a “wanted” poster (with a sketch of Tetsu).

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The only bonus feature is a four-screen Suzuki filmography. What matters most is the visuals, and the transfer has the eye-popping colors as clear as they could ever have been. One might go on about the breakdown of the samurai code of honor and corrupt contracting even in the first year of the Showa era, but the movie was made to be looked at, and to provide occasion for action, not as an analysis of Japanese society ca. 1926 or 1965.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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