"The yakuza code in their flight, what will they wear, red or white?"
Gamblers and card sharks, prostitution, and Yakuza-style vengeance…welcome to Seijun Suzuki's Kanto Wanderer. While the film itself is slightly stale and is nowhere as groundbreaking or exciting as Suzuki's later work, it does offers a revealing glimpse into the gradual but progressive experimental development of a director…before he got fired for being too weird, that is.
Facts of the Case
Three high school girls come home from school one day, giggling and talking about the exciting new men they have met. Hanako is the most daring of the group, and speaks at great length about her attraction to a small-time crook named Diamond Fuyu, a thug for boss Yoshida. The three girls watch Fuyu get a yakuza tattoo on his arm…Hanako is excited, but the other two squeal and rapidly depart.
Hanako soon finds herself in deep trouble, sinking within the yakuza world. She spends the day with a "friend" of Fuyu, a sleazy gangster named Tetsu (who, in actuality, works for rival boss Izu). Tetsu cajoles her into playing a "game," the outcome of which enslaves Hanako into a world of prostitution from which she cannot escape. Having made a quick buck, Tetsu heads back to his base to brag.
The rest of the gang is less than impressed. Boss Izu, who is slowly losing his grip on his territory, has resorted to less-than-honorable real-estate shenanigans to maintain his power, and has no time for Tetsu's incompetence. Neither does Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi), a yakuza soldier for boss Izu, who is young, but severe and honorable, a throwback from a previous generation of yakuza who pride gallantry and code above petty monetary gains. He sports an evil scar from ear to cheek, a souvenir of an encounter four years ago, when he rescued a card-hustler woman from an angry mob.
After Tokiko, one of Hanako's high school friends, requests his help in locating the missing Hanako, Katsuta grabs Tetsu by the ear and forces him to relocate the girl he swindled. The first step involves finding Diamond Fuyu, who works for boss Yoshida, the man putting the power play on Izu, violently trying to seize his territory. For Katsuta, this mission is about protecting his boss's honor, about preserving the yakuza code.
But Katsuta has his work cut out for him…Diamond Fuyu has a sister named Iwata, the same thieving woman he rescued four years ago. Katsuta finds himself irresistibly attracted to the woman, despite her small-time wheeling and dealings, and must make a decision that will test his very resolve to the core. Does he follow his heart, and proceed with the woman for whom he yearns, or does he stay true to the code, and protect his boss's honor…even when it becomes clear that his gang, falling further and further into corruption, may not be worth protecting?
It is said that the true yakuza is destined to wear both red and white in his life…red being the color of prison garbs, and white being the color of a funeral garb. One can choose which they wish to wear, but ultimately, most end up wearing both.
Katsuta is a man rigorously conditioned by his code of honor, especially in contrast to the inherent shadiness and moral flexibility exhibited by those around him. The yakuza in this film are opportunistic, nihilistic, and petty, squandering their honor for small financial gain. In opposition lies the protagonist, a man willing to lay down his life to preserve the honor that nobody around him cares about anymore, no matter what the consequences.
This ideology is by far the most interesting aspect of Kanto Wanderer. Despite this particularly gripping and intriguing trope, the rest of the film is straightforward, banal, and fairly uninspired, though it does have a wicked and decisively jaded resolution. Considered in Suzuki's "middle period" of work, Kanto Wanderer straddles the fence between basic studio fare and daring experimentation, perched on the threshold of his complete artistic breakdown into abstract experimentation…but at this point in Suzuki's career, the daringness is fewer and farther between, coming like drops of water on a parched desert.
As previously mentioned, Suzuki's notoriously esoteric touches start to develop around this period in his career; in Kanto Wanderer, the filmmaker gradually starts to experiment with light and color in daring, avant-garde expressions. The film is lit aggressively, like a play, with lights dimming and raising at dramatic points of action or tension, to highlight the emotions. Color plays an important role in Kanto Wanderer, as it does in many of Suzuki's films. Pulses of light, like ripples of anger and passion, explode during heights of sword fighting violence or dramatic tension. Brown burn marks eviscerate the frame like a visceral scar during heated arguments. The audacious flash of color during the final combat sequence is the most arresting visual in the film, and also the most significant.
As a director, Suzuki is top notch. Suzuki has a style and grace to his camera movements unparalleled in the B-movie world of his contemporaries. Kanto Wanderer contains some glorious widescreen compositions, meticulously preserved by an amazing transfer. The color and the action play off one another to compose scenes of surprising profoundness. Even better, the anamorphic widescreen transfer is a thing of pristine beauty, with nary an enhanced edge or an ugly mark in sight. For a film of this age, the transfer is an immaculate one. Black levels are rich and deep, and colors balance masterfully between low-key and unassuming and erupting with vibrant force.
The sound is very mono, and very typical of the time period; dialogue is well preserved and clear, though the quality breaks down the louder the actors speak, distorting noticeably. It is hardly a distressing audio transfer, but keep your expectations moderately low. The subtitles (English only) are spot-on, with no grammatical or conceptual errors to speak of. There is a director's filmography, but no other extras to speak of.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the glowing praise heaped upon the film in the liner notes, Kanto Wanderer is hardly the most spectacular example of the master's work. Forget Kanto Wanderer—why is there no Youth Of The Beast (Yaju no seishun) on DVD? Or Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no mon), Story of a Prostitute (Shunpu den), or the awesome Elegy to Violence (Kenka erejii) available in North America? Kanto Wanderer is better than the average fare, but nowhere near the level of Suzuki's later work.
While it is great to see more of Suzuki's films reaching a North American audience, Kanto Wanderer is merely so-so. A beautifully composed and skillfully crafted film, to be sure, but ultimately, Kanto Wanderer feels bland and mediocre in comparison to Suzuki's other films.
There is enough in Kanto Wanderer to distinguish itself from the countless core of studio ninkyo eiga films churned out at the time, but not enough to elevate the film to lofty heights. As such, the flashes of inspiration are too few and far between to be significant. The weaker elements of the film, like the straightforward uninspired plot, tend to muddle the film down in mediocrity.
Not guilty…but let's start seeing more Suzuki movies on DVD, shall we?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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