Set adrift in the late 1960s after infuriating Japanese film studio Nikkatsu one too many times with his radically anti-narrative pulp thrillers, Seijun Suzuki didn’t make a proper return to filmmaking until 1980’s Zigeunerweisen, which is set in Japan’s modernizing Taisho period of the early 20th century. Though the film lacks the jazzy, fleet-footed quality of Suzuki’s early B movies, it nonetheless displays the director’s wildly idiosyncratic approach to continuity and narrative. Throughout, the film disrupts its austere formalism with a jagged editing structure, plunging audiences into the subconscious of playwright protagonist Aochi (Toshiya Fujita) as he becomes embroiled with a former colleague, Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), who dropped out of society to become a roving madman accused of murdering a woman.
The men’s relationship gradually devolves into a nightmare propelled by mutual attraction to a geisha, Oine (Naoko Ôtani), and, later, a doppelgänger of the woman, Sono, whom Nakasago marries. Aochi’s own wife, the free-loving, shamelessly seductive Shuko (Michiyo Ohkusu), also complicates things as the characters begin to entwine with each other. It’s confusing enough as is, with characters doubling for each other and erotic plotlines converging and splintering, before Suzuki then shatters continuity with clashing transitions and sudden intrusions of bodies and objects into the frame. Characters die then appear later in the film, or maybe they’re doubles, or hallucinations. The film slides from mundane realism to unnerving dream logic, sometimes within the same shot, forcing the audience to surrender to the disintegrating narrative and the ruptures of sexual paranoia.
Improbably, the film was a financial and critical success in Japan, and it allowed Suzuki to swiftly secure funding for future films. Being himself, the director promptly set about making Zigeunerweisen‘s warped imagery look like a warm-up. The following year’s Kagero-za and 1991’s trilogy-concluding Yumeji remain in the Taisho period but dive headlong into the oneiric horror that their predecessor sedately explored. Kagero-za is a mind-bender from its opening images, which take an odd but mostly pedestrian meeting between a man and a woman and upends it with shots that reposition the static characters on the fly, or leave them in the same position but in new settings as if they were standing in front of a painted background on a roller.
Suzuki’s uses the Westernizing backdrop of the period setting to deepen the notions of doubling and sliding, indefinite identity that pervade all three films. Zigeunerweisen‘s interiors gradually shift from shoji screens and tatami mats to the sturdy oak walls of British- and American-style studies and parlors. Traditional clothing coexists alongside tailored suits and flapper dresses, and jazzy, seedy speakeasies arrive in idyllic towns. The sense of transience further renders the characters as ghosts, a theme made transparent, or rather, translucent, in an early shot from Yumeji that uses superimpositions to turn a group of playing children into wispy apparitions.
Suzuki’s classic noir thrillers, like Tokyo Drifer and Branded to Kill, were triumphs of postmodern pastiche, employing everything from animated cut-outs to Godardian jump cuts to create jumbled works of garish pop art. The films of the Taisho trilogy, with their slower grooves and period production design, are a world apart from those works, but this seemingly sedate style is merely a front for a slipshod approach to reality and consciousness closer to the experiential tenets of modernism, trading boastful excesses of style for a complete fusion between placid surface and roiling subtext.
The films in the Taisho trilogy slip deftly between images of various brightness and florid color, and Arrow Video's transfers balance these fluctuations without issue. The earthy tones of Zigeunerweisen make the occasional shocks of more brilliant colors all the more striking. Meanwhile, the vibrantly chromatic Kagero-za looks florid in its oversaturation, while Yumeji stands out for its slightly dimmed frames which brighten considerably when its protagonist enters his flights of fancy. Sound is consistent across all releases, with balanced 2.0 tracks that keep dialogue clear while calling the most attention to Kaname Kawachi's dissonant scores.
Much of the bonus content on the discs features critic Tony Rayns, who offers strong overviews of the trilogy as a whole along with greater detail on the individual films, though he is prone to making diversionary remarks on Japanese critics and unrelated films. There's also an archival interview with Suzuki, as well as footage of the director on the set of Yumeji as he instructs cast and crew. The most significant feature, however, is the accompanying booklet filled with detailed essays that impart a great deal of social and thematic context for the films without ever trying to decode their mysteries.
Seijun Suzuki's Taisho trilogy launched the director back into the forefront of the Japanese avant-garde, and Arrow's sharp box set perfectly preserves the late filmmaker's most challenging works.