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Honoring a Master of Japan's Gangster Films


Back in the '60s when Japanese-language theaters were still flourishing in Los Angeles, exhibitors made virtually no attempt to press-screen films from Nikkatsu Studios, the minor among the Japanese majors, unless they were the rare prestige items from a company synonymous with lurid exploitation pictures.

While it's true the long-defunct but still-missed Toho La Brea, which filled in Toho product with Nikkatsu releases, did preview "Gate of Flesh" (1964), a memorably sensational item about postwar Tokyo prostitutes, its maker, Seijun Suzuki, was otherwise little-known to local reviewers.

Now, Filmforum is presenting "Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Seijun Suzuki," a 12-film series at the Nuart starting Friday with "Branded to Kill" (1980) and "Tokyo Drifter" (1966).

Regarded as Suzuki's masterwork--and the film that finally led Nikkatsu, with whom he battled constantly, to fire him after 40 pictures--"Branded to Kill" really is a tour de force. Imagine blending the romantic fatalism and formality of a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster picture with the energy and outrageousness of a Sam Fuller thriller and you have a rough idea of "Branded to Kill," which on one level is a sendup of the yakuza genres in which Suzuki toiled so long and so excitingly.

Jo Shishido stars as the Number 3 Killer in the Tokyo underworld, a hired assassin whose world starts to crumble when a butterfly lands on his rifle sights at just the wrong moment. A triumph of style and mood, "Branded to Kill" is terse, deadpan and terrific, boasting a moody, bluesy score.

"Tokyo Drifter," similar in tone, finds a young gangster (Tetsuya Watari) and his master (Ryuji Kita) settled into a father-and-son relationship as respectable businessmen when one of their Tokyo buildings, under a mortgage, becomes the source of conflict with an old rival gang and ultimately a test of the older man's loyalty to the younger man. Action builds to a riotous climax in an imitation Old West saloon in Sasebo, home of an American naval base. "Branded to Kill" and "Tokyo Drifter" will screen again on March 20. (310) 478-6379.


The American Cinematheque's Alternative Screen will feature Gregory Ruzzin's stunning "Blue Skies Are a Lie" (Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Raleigh Studios). It's one of those little movies that seem to come out of nowhere to give heart to movie-lovers; if there's any justice, it will land the regular release it so richly deserves.

Keith Brunsmann plays Joseph, a once-successful international photojournalist who one day recorded with his camera one atrocity too many for his psyche. As a result, he has holed himself up in his second-floor Los Angeles apartment for seven years, systematically recording from the media how the human race is destroying itself and popping pills for his various ailments, including epilepsy.

Recently, however, he has been responding to what appears to be his only human contact, his mail carrier, Robyn (radiant Julie Moses), a pretty, vivacious young woman who kindly delivers his tons of mail to his door rather than to his mailbox downstairs.

In struggling to master stand-up comedy, Robyn finds herself opening herself up to life's possibilities, outgrowing her sweet-natured, handsome but not especially imaginative live-in boyfriend (Matthew Sheehan) and becoming intrigued with the gaunt, clearly brilliant but damaged Joseph. What happens next is tremendously touching and thoroughly captivating. Ruzzin is a real talent, and so are his actors. (213) 466-FILM.


Years before Terry Zwigoff made "Crumb," he did the one-hour 1985 "Louie Bluie," an infectious portrait of Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, one of the last of the black string musicians.

A handsome old devil, Armstrong is seen jamming and joshing with fellow musicians with whom he has worked for decades. Armstrong is not only a banjo virtuoso and ace fiddler but also a compelling storyteller and illustrator whose drawings and texts are often as racy as those of R. Crumb himself. It's good to report that Armstrong, now 87, was a hit in Boston just two months ago. Filmforum presents "Louie Bluie" at LACE on Sunday at 7 p.m. (213) 466-4143.

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