"My flesh is tainted!"—Tetsu the White Fox
On the heels of their releases of Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower and the Kinji Fukasaku pulp classics Blackmail Is My Life and If You Were Young: Rage, American Cinematheque and Home Vision Entertainment have teamed again to bring us three flicks from the master of the yakuza actioner, Seijun Suzuki: Underworld Beauty, Kanto Wanderer, and Tattooed Life.
Let's take a look at Tattooed Life…
Facts of the Case
Set in the first year of the Showa Era (1926), Tattooed Life follows the exploits of Tetsu the White Fox, a yakuza hit man betrayed by his gang after his last hit. When his boss' bodyguard tries to murder him, Tetsu's innocent younger brother Kenji—an aspiring artist—intercedes and kills the assassin. Hunted by the gangsters, the brothers decide to escape to Manchuria, but have difficulty making the crossing and take jobs in a construction gang, working in a safely anonymous part of the Japanese countryside controlled by the Yamashita family.
During his off-hours from dynamiting a mine tunnel, Kenji becomes dangerously obsessed with doing nude figure studies of the motherly Mrs. Yamashita. By contrast, Mrs. Yamashita's younger sister Midori is smitten with Tetsu and wants him to drop his kimono and give her an eyeful, an offer he refuses because his ornate, full-body tattoo will reveal his yakuza status and bring down the authorities. Petty jealousies, intrigue, and double-crosses abound, eventually bringing Tetsu's former yakuza family to the construction site seeking revenge, thus setting the stage for a climactic clash of swords.
The majority of Tattooed Life's run will seem visually subdued to those whose familiarity with Seijun Suzuki extends no further than his masterpieces of weird yakuza action, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but rest assured—the final 10-minute showdown is pure Suzuki style. Set in a thunderstorm, Tetsu slinks nimbly through lightning-flash punctuation, sword in one hand and parasol in the other. Interior portions of the battle use shoji screens to create an unfolding maze of the enemy's house, the raucous action set against the formal right angles of Japanese architecture. Inside, the thunder and lightning of the storm are replaced by the sharp report and muzzle flash of Tetsu's pistol as he wields both sword and gun against his enemies. Suzuki throws in overhead shots of Tetsu churning through his opponents, the action framed against the formal lines of the tatami below them. Coolest yet is the way Tetsu's showdown with the boss begins with a shot from below, the actors standing on glass; it's a technique Suzuki would employ again, and to far more surreal effect, in Branded to Kill when Hanada, the yakuza hero, watches film of the torture of his femme fatale. Tattooed Life's climax represents an abrupt shift from the film's earlier realist, by-the-numbers compositions to a visual lyricism that is recognizably Suzukian. Even more importantly, it's a quick peek into the style of the filmmaker's future work.
Cinephiles who love Suzuki's style but bemoan the lack of narrative coherence in his most famous works should take note of Tattooed Life. It is exactly the sort of program actioner Branded to Kill would have been if the filmmaker had put in the effort to ensure a plot that proceeded with a modicum of logic: entertaining, sure, but nothing to write home about. Tattooed Life demonstrates how Branded to Kill would be a lesser film if it made more narrative sense.
Suzuki worked for B-movie studio Nikkatsu from the late 1950s to the late '60s, and in that time he cranked out around 40 pictures (by contrast, Kurosawa directed 30 over the course of his 50-year career). Nikkatsu expected from its directors low budget flicks, shot fast and on the fly, adhering to the narrow limits of genre formulas and almost guaranteed to produce at least modest returns. Suzuki obliged…for a while. By the mid-'60s, the thin plots of the filmmaker's assigned pictures were becoming more and more subordinate to pure visual expression. Branded to Kill is, famously, the point at which Suzuki's ultra-hip, art film sensibilities completely overtook his genre assignments, getting him canned by the Nikkatsu suits. So, Tattooed Life is fun on two levels: it's an entertaining, if routine, yakuza actioner (the genre, after all, was designed as pure entertainment for the masses) that also offers glimpses of the high style that would define Suzuki as an important Japanese director and land him in studio hot water within the next couple years.
Those interested in seeing Tattooed Life will have a fine time with Home Vision's DVD. The image is so pretty, it's hard to believe the film pre-dates both Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Dirt and damage are minimal, and the transfer's greatest asset is its gorgeous color, which is reproduced with vibrant clarity and makes even the more pedestrian of Suzuki's compositions in the 2.35:1 frame a sight to behold. The image is a tad soft in some shots, but there's almost nothing in the way of haloing from edge enhancement, and I'll take the former flaw over the latter any day.
The mono Japanese soundtrack has been restored, and presents dialogue, music, and effects in beautiful fashion, without distracting hiss or other flaws. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The only supplement is a Seijun Suzuki filmography.
Tattooed Life is good fun, not to be missed by fans of yakuza flicks or those interested in Seijun Suzuki's development as a director.
All parties are found not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Seijun Suzuki Filmography
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