Monday, September 11, 2017

Seijun Suzuki | すべてが狂ってる (Subete ga kurutteru) (Everything Goes Wrong)

over the cliff
by Douglas Messerli

Seiji Hoshikawa (screenplay, based on a story by Akira Ichijō), Seijun Suzuki (director) すべてが狂ってる (Subete ga kurutteru) (Everything Goes Wrong) / 1960

If one can imagine a re-mix of the American popular film series Gidget (see My Year 2015, vol. 2) with Douglas Sirk’s Rebel without a Cause (My Year, same volume), with a soupçon of West Side Story mixed in, one might reveal some notion of what Seijun Suzuki’s 1960s SunTribe film, “The Cliff and the Madness of Youth” (a title that surely calls up Rebel)—released in the US now as Everything Goes Wrong—is like.

The young “gang” members of this film, actually rather docile, but nonetheless rebelling high-school students, who hang out in a local café, are really just normally disaffected youths of the period, unhappy with the values of their war-time parents, and unable to find a way yet, given the patriarchal and often World War II-bound society in which they live, to make the changes they see necessary. Mostly they hang out, steal—like the characters of Breakfast at Tiffany’s—small grocery-store items, and hope someone shows up with enough cash to treat them through their next round of drinks.

      Don’t get me wrong, there is a dark undercurrent of their activities which might threaten even the strongest of normative societies. Many of the young males involved see themselves as being part of a “gang,” and, occasionally, they pull off an auto-theft or other more serious activities which puts them face-to-face with the Japanese Mafia, and suggests their future in the  1960s society in which they exist. There is a great deal of casual sex and male misogynistic behavior. If these young beach-loving kids might “grow out of it,” as we might say today, some will surely be lost, like James Dean, Nathalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. And murder and death, as in West Side Story is always just around the corner. Worst of all, in their dedication to their moment in history, they are almost pathological selfish.

      What is so remarkable about Suzuki’s film, 57 years after its original shooting, is just how current it still feels to that time. These gang members dance, not quite like Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story characters, but through the endlessly electric and jumpy camera images of Suzuki. For the first part of the movie, indeed, any old time-viewers need not apply. Suzuki looks ahead to the cell-phone text-message society of today, whipping through relationships and conversations faster that the ear can sometimes even ascertain—at least these older, pre-contemporary ears. Conversations between friends are completely cryptic, cut off mid-discussion, personalized to such a degree that, during the first few moments, it is difficult even to establish the student’s (and adult’s) relationships with one another. But, of course, that is part of the problem, at least as Jirō Sugita (Tamio Kawachi) perceives it. His mother, the traditionally-bound

     Misayo, has taken up, presumably after the death of his father in the war, with a wealthy married business man, Keigo Nanbara. To us he seems a loving replacement, helping to pay for Misayo expenses, as well as the education of Jirō; but to her son he is not only an interloper, but a man who is paying for his mother as if she were a prostitute—a endless theme in Japanese filmmaking.

     On top of the youthful dissatisfaction and jump-cut editing of their behavior, Suzuki also adds a brilliant jazz-score by composer Keitarō Miho, including song-cuts from current groups  of the day. The results are electrifying, and help to express the youthful uncommunicative expressions in a way that very few members of the older society might have comprehended.

     Indeed, despite the hateful and rude expressions of Jirō, Nambara determines that he must simply “connect up” with the youth and “talk with him” to resolve the distress expressed by Misayo. That, of course, is his big mistake. To try to sympathize with a young person by suggesting you might comprehend his angst is like calling across a canyon while being shaken by an earthquake. As one of the Jet’s gang says in West Side Story, when a similar adult suggests, “When I was your age,” “You were never my age!”

      Trying to track down Misayo’s son, Nambara encounters several of his “wild” friends, including a girl Etsuko, who, in an attempt to seduce the elder into her room, tells him she will be at the Zushi beach resort with her friends and Jirō the next day. Clueless, Nambara shows  up, where Jirō finds him in the room with Etsuko, after having dragged his own mother to the resort to prove that her lover has been seeing younger girls.

      If the mix-up and the following violence—in which Jirō nearly bludgeons the elder man to death—and runs off in a police car chase that ultimately kills him, is a bit contrived, so be it. It’s a scree to youth—with both its moral freshness and its total lack of vision—that can only make one cry for the impossibility to bring these groups together. As in both Rebel without a Cause and West Side Story, the elders can only look on after the youth’s deaths with a feeling of distress for their not being to deter the inevitable, feeling like sacks of flesh that can no longer have much effect on the next generation’s lives. Although Nambara forgives is youthful attacker, it has utterly no meaning—unless you believe in some religious redemption.

       Nearly all of the SunTribe movies, films based the contemporary youth subculture and “their affinity for beach life, jazz music, and progressive attitudes towards sex,” met with great public outrage and eventually were halted on behalf of the Japanese Motion Picture Code of Ethics Committee. Yet the genre came back again even stronger, soon after, including the production of this film.

      Today, Suzuki’s films, particularly this one, seem in sync with the French New Wave, and present us with a completely different vision of the great Japanese modernists such as Ozu, Kurosawa, and others.  Along with the later Hani and, of course, Oshima, through Suzuki, western viewers were able to get a completely new perspective of Japanese contemporary culture.      

Los Angeles, September 21, 2017

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