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An Explosion of Lawlessness

Cinematheque series focuses on a violent but little-known (in the U.S.) Japanese film genre


When most people think of Japanese cinema, their minds usually turn to the stately storytelling of Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu. Aside from the craft and mastery of their filmmaking, these directors in many ways helped to create a broader understanding of Japanese culture among Western audiences.

Starting Friday, the American Cinematheque's fourth Japanese Outlaw Masters series brings a different side of the nation's filmmaking to the public.

Spotlighting such lesser-known directors as Seijun Suzuki, Takeshi Miike and Kinji Fukasaku, these films are full of mad yakuza gangsters, eruptions of graphic violence, the occasional cross-dresser and cinematic technique that is jazzy and jagged to the point of near insanity. Not for the faint of heart, these often challenging films are also ultimately quite rewarding, both for their own wild aesthetics and for the way they engender a fuller sense of the Japanese film industry.

"There's a tradition of genre filmmaking in Japan from the 1950s to today that really flourished from 1955 to 1975," says Cinematheque programmer Chris D. "The Japanese films commonly known in America represent a small fraction of the overall output. Because of the studio system in place there, the level of skill and craftsmanship on all their films is incredible."

Largely lacking the sleek narrative efficiencies of even the most fringe American filmmaking, the work presented in the Japanese series strives for something else. Often reaching a point at which technique and emotion combine to create incredibly powerful and vivid imagery, these films are like a blast of wasabi: bracing and strange, yet leaving you wanting more.

Perhaps the reigning godfather of the Japanese outlaw "movement" is Suzuki, whose latest film, the aptly titled "Pistol Opera," opens the series in its L.A. premiere. Just this side of 80, Suzuki has made 40-plus films in a career that dates back to 1956. Beginning as a contract director at the Nikkastu studio, he made some 25 films between his debut and 1963's "Youth of the Beast," generally considered his breakthrough work.

Though he was making genre pictures on small budgets and tight schedules, Suzuki's interests began to move in other directions. Described by critic David Chute as a "free jazz gangster film," 1966's "Tokyo Drifter" submerged narrative to the point of abstraction, as the imagery of Suzuki's pictures became his primary focus. After 1967's "Branded to Kill," Nikkastu fired Suzuki, ostensibly for making incoherent pictures. Since he left the studio system to work as an independent filmmaker, Suzuki's output has slowed, and he has made only a handful of films since the late 1970s. His enormous body of work was virtually unscreened in America until the 1990s.

A sort-of sequel to "Branded to Kill," Suzuki' s latest film finds him returning to the yakuza revenge thriller as a beautiful assassin stalks her prey, but the action is rendered in such a way as to make it nearly incomprehensible as a conventional narrative. Instead, Suzuki creates a wondrous cascade of images, each sequence seemingly more fantastic than the last. Perhaps the only close relation is the dream-logic of a film such as David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive."

"If you walk in expecting to see a straight-up action film, you're going to be disappointed," warns Chris D. "But if you expect to see a deconstructed film disguised as a commentary on genre, with a style that's almost painterly, a series of filmed landscapes, you'll be amazed."

At the other end of the outlaw spectrum is Miike, considered the reigning enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. Working at a prodigious pace, he routinely makes three or four films a year, many of them for the Japanese home video market.

The extreme violence and operatic emotions of his films polarize a love-him-or-hate-him attitude in most filmgoers. Miike, 42, is among a handful of filmmakers who work in the uncompromising manner blazed by Suzuki.

"I'd say the biggest thing they have in common is a dark, almost macabre sense of humor," says Chris D., who has worked for more than 10 years on a forthcoming encyclopedia of Japanese yakuza films. "Even amid the mayhem of Miike or narrative convulsions of Suzuki, I always find myself laughing. Say what you will about it, but I find 'Ichi the Killer' very funny."

"Ichi the Killer," which receives its Los Angeles debut on Saturday, is an adaptation of a banned manga comic and is Miike's most successful film to date in Japan.

People familiar with his work through the slow-burn creepiness of "Audition," which received a theatrical release here late last year, will be in for a shock. "Ichi" can be seen as a compilation of gross-out one-upmanship in which bodies are mangled and mutilated in increasingly outlandish ways. But that would overlook the strange, understated poetry of the film's climactic showdown, in which the emotionally distraught hit man of the title meets the obsessive mob boss who is, in fact, its main character.

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