A Japanese film noir by a director long overlooked in America.
Director Seijun Suzuki is over 80 years old and still making films. His filmography (listed in Underworld Beauty's sole extra) is massive, spanning six decades. Suzuki's films have a reputation for being very strange. Yet I have never seen one of his films until now. After viewing Underworld Beauty, I can see the influence Suzuki has had on modern directors.
Facts of the Case
Miyamoto is a hardboiled gangster with a conscientious code of ethics. After getting out of prison, he collects three massive diamonds he salted away. The procurement of these diamonds left his friend crippled, and Miyamoto vows to use the riches to make up for the accident.
But illicit diamonds do not exist in a vacuum. Miyamoto's former crime boss has been counting the days until Miyamoto's release. Miyamoto heads straight for "headquarters" to confront the boss. With appealing directness, he asks the boss to forget the diamonds so that he can make things right with his partner. The boss seems amenable to Miyamoto's plea.
Miyamoto will find that repairing his friend's life is not so simple. It will be even more difficult with the interference of Akiko, the younger sister of his old partner. She lashes out against the criminal life that ruined her elder brother, but her own behavior is taking her down into the same life. If it is too late for Miyamoto's partner, perhaps there is still hope for Akiko.
Roughly ten years after the heyday of the American film noir, Suzuki created his seventh film: Underworld Beauty. In contrast with Suzuki's reputation, this one is relatively straightforward. It is a film noir through and through, down to the feisty dame and dearth of acceptable options. Underworld Beauty is no threat to knock Casablanca off the top of the noir totem pole, but let's be realistic. Suzuki was a studio director working under a tight schedule and limited budget, with unrecognized actors to boot. We'd expect a completely forgettable potboiler under such circumstances. Yet Suzuki manages a close approximation of the great noirs, particularly in terms of visual style. The story also has some key moments that have clearly influenced modern directors of cool.
The style is undeniable. The widescreen black and white photography is technically impressive, with hallmark pools of darkness that seem alive. Light, steam, reflection, shadow, and composition are deftly manipulated to make each scene both distinct and unified. Some scenes seem staged, which takes you out of the flow (American noirs are guilty of that same flaw). But most of the time you can marvel at the set design, composition, and other visual elements. Lighting will make or break a set. Suzuki films the sets under many different conditions at different angles, which reveals remarkable technical facility.
The transfer is diligently handled and does the film justice. Black and white transfers can shift colors or black levels and throw off a scene, but this one avoids such problems. There is definite grain and an occasional softness that I associate with digital restoration, but I'm not privy to the details of the restoration. It looks well preserved.
Underworld Beauty has a straightforward yet complex plot involving remorse, greed, honor, and choice. Intellectually, this plot is heavy with tension and meaning, though I wasn't always swept up in the drama of the moment. If I had to put my finger on why, it would be the lack of musical cues. American noir is heavy on musical cues, but Japanese cinema often is not. In fact, there was little of note in this muddy monaural track. Fear not: dramatic emphasis aside, Underworld Beauty delivers a complex net of double-crosses and underworld codes. Emotionally it doesn't connect, but intellectually it does. Suzuki even manages to throw in some symbolic shots, such as the diamonds resting in a bed of charcoal and two birds swinging in a cage during the last scene.
Like the American noirs it emulates, Underworld Beauty contains little in the way of wholesome romance. Akiko has a pseudo-boyfriend who sculpts her naked-but-conveniently-obscured form. He also works for The Boss, but I'm unsure of whether Akiko realizes this. What is certain is that he seems more annoyed by her than anything (and who can blame him with her shrill admonitions to "play with" her). So Akiko hits the bars, drinking with American soldiers and suffering the occasional peck. Miyamoto offers her the clearest chance for love, but he is too corrupted by the underworld life to wholly open himself. Underworld Beauty is not trite in this regard.
The real story is the influence this 1958 crime flick had on modern directors. There are at least two clear influences I can perceive. The first is John Woo. Miyamoto engages in a gunfight that is more stylized than realistic. His revolver fires at least 15 times in one scene, which is impressive for a peashooter. His endless supply of ammo sets up lightning-quick action and provides artistic moments as well, such as when Miyamoto shoots out all of the lights. A more direct connection can be made between Underworld Beauty and Reservoir Dogs. See if this sounds familiar: an introverted, grizzled hood gets out of the pen and comes to visit his old boss. The boss watches on while the hood plays around with the boss's dumb-but-trusted sidekick. Eventually the boss tires of the game and sends the sidekick away. The hood states that he never once mentioned The Boss on the inside, proving his loyalty. In return, he wants a favor. This setup seems much like Vic Vega's visit to Joe Cabot. Tarantino uses the setup in a much different way, which is what good homage does. But the influence is clearly there, which raises my esteem for Underworld Beauty.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The acting is either reserved or slapstick, rarely sublime. Akiko is nearly manic in her slovenly antics while Miyamoto seems one heartbeat away from a coma. Japanese acting often emphasizes characterization by distorting personality characteristics—for proof, look no further than Kurosawa's works. My reaction to the acting could be due to the gulf of 50 years and half a globe.
One thing I am sure about is the lack of extras: a filmography, and not a very informative one at that. I could have gone to IMDb and copied Suzuki's filmography. Now, an annotated or selected filmography might have been something…
DVD is so fascinating because it gives us access to films we would otherwise never see. As citizens of world cinema, releases like Underworld Beauty are welcome additions to our film choices. If you have heard of Suzuki, or you cherish Japanese cinema, Underworld Beauty is right up your alley. Noir fans may appreciate the reach of the genre. The DVD extras are slight and the audio unimpressive, but the film looks good and is still relevant.
Not a bad flick for a vanilla studio effort. Suzuki's influence has stood the test of time—how can this court find him guilty?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Director Filmography
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