Sunday, August 25, 2013

Zigeunerweisen (1980)

A long hiatus later, the tragically blacklisted bad boy of Japanese Cinema, Seijun Suzuki returned to filmmaking in the late 70s. In collaboration with producer Genjiro Arato, Suzuki made the first film of what would later be known as the Taisho Roman trilogy which mostly told stories that were a fascinatingly odd mix of surrealist psychological dramas and tales of the supernatural!

This particular story revolves around strange occurrences in the life of Toyojiro Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a professor of German in the Taisho period in the late 30s. There is no definite plot structure or theme to relate in "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), the title of which refers to a musical composition in a Pablo de Sarasate gramophone record which is the key recurring motif in this bizarre odyssey of Aochi. The record plays in the beginning and two voices ponder about some incoherent spoken words in the record that shouldn't be there, for it's an instrumental record.

Later we come to know that one of the voices is of Aochi himself while the other of Nakasago, an odd character with a fetish for bones and skeletons, especially the red ones! Nakasago may also be Aochi's old friend and colleague. Nakasago (Yoshio Harada) who looks like Jesus Christ, and dresses up like a monk, is accused of murder of a local village woman married to another man. Aochi comes to his rescue and the villagers let him go. This is the simple beginning to what's to turn into one of the most extraordinarily absurd stories ever told with a straight face ever since Luis Bunuel's last few films!

Nakasago claims that he did not kill the woman. It was six red crabs who ate into her flesh. They all later came out of her private parts! As bizarre as it sounds, Aochi who mostly bears one expression on his face, seems to accept Nakasago's claims and the two move on to the next part of their journey involving a geisha O-Ine (Naoko Ôtani) and three singing beggars, two of whom are blind. Going any further ahead with the plot or its synopsis won't serve any purpose, for Suzuki's film is not much about story or logic, as it is about an irrational universe created by Suzuki based on a novel by Hyakken Uchida. 

Only Suzuki ensures that however ridiculous and over-the-top the events and happenings in his story may seem, they enthrall and captivate the target audience who will most definitely lap up the proceedings with their mouths wide open and their eyes transfixed to the screen! Suzuki's film brings to mind Luis Bunuel's final films of his French era, especially, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972), "The Phantom of Liberty" (1974), and "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977). These are the kind of films which occur only in the Bunuel universe, wherein any odd or ludicrous occurrence is taken at face value, without questions being asked, almost as if they were regular, mundane events. Of course, in Suzuki's film, Aochi keeps reiterating that it is all rather strange, but brushes these episodes aside, nevertheless!

Suzuki's film, however, lacks that overtly comic touch of Bunuel films, and that's a good thing in the context of this film. Although some subtle comedy exists in small bits, the film oscillates between horror and surrealism. There is no real plot that comes to a full closure, but a series of episodes that happen in the life of Aochi, all involving his weird friend Nagasako! What is awe-inspiring is the way these events are narrated. Sometimes characters start telling their stories, and the film cuts to flashback. Sometimes Aochi tells his own tales in voice-overs; stories that extend over almost 10 years! Whether these yarns are real events, dream sequences or hallucinations is not clear. The viewer can only infer from the total outlandishness of the some of the tales whether they took place only in the character's mind or whether some credibility can be lent to what happened.

To further create a disorienting and unsettling, nightmarish feel to the proceedings, Suzuki lends his own special touch. A fluid narrative style interspersed with moments of silence, and slow motion images giving off an oneiric feel are seen at times. The silence is broken with a hint of a chillingly quiet background score that oozes a strange feeling of a foreboding nature. Some of the images are downright scary, enough to give modern horror films a run for their money! Suzuki also employs seamless match-cut editing and some more innovative techniques in his splices between present and flashback. For instance, one woman lying on the bed starts narrating a story, the camera zooms in on a window, and zooms back out, and voila! We now enter flashback mode! In yet another example of oddball imaginative creativity, Suzuki, without caring for any logic, comfortably changes the backdrop of a scene. Two men conversing on the street suddenly appear to be standing in a dark cave to continue their conversation and back again! 

The visual department and atmospherics are the primary winning points, also accentuated and enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography by Kazue Nagatsuka. His use of colour, and black and white, both stand out in their amazingly contrasting glory. However, it is not just the imagery that stands out but also the sound design and brilliant music score by Kaname Kawachi that adds a deliciously creepy and hypnotizing effect. Of course, Sarasate's record and its music play a very important role too, especially in the most ingenious way the defect in the record comes full circle! 

Suzuki's power lies in his storytelling and how well he visualizes the freaky narrative proceedings. He makes "Zigeunerweisen" an unforgettable and captivating audio-visual experience that engages throughout by literally letting us immerse into his strange, desolate world. The only minor problem in the film lies in some bits which come across as a tad repetitive and without any major consequence. "Zigeunerweisen" is nevertheless, a riveting film experience, a spectacular supernatural thriller/ghost story/surrealist psychological drama or whatever you might want to call it.

Seijun Suzuki returned to filmmaking with a bang with this gem and yet it is sad to learn that most exhibitors declined to screen the film. Hence, producer Genjiro Arato himself screened the film in a mobile inflatable tent, to great success that led to an Honourable Mention at the 31st Berlin International Film Festival and winning of four Japanese Academy Awards! The rest, as they say, is history.

Score: 9/10

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