Princess Raccoon (Japan, 2005)

Popular thought dictates that the films of Seijun Suzuki are difficult, obtuse, and illogical works that exist in a very aestheticized universe.  Watch a few of his films, especially his late “60s work for Nikkatsu studios or his critically celebrated Taisho Trilogy, and it becomes very easy to box him into that specific category and engage with his work on only a superficial level.  The images that Suzuki puts on the screen may often be treated as nothing more than just eye candy to be consumed and digested by many cinephiles, but the artifice in his films all serve a purpose.  Nothing in a Suzuki film is just there to pretty up the frame.  His jarring visual style is Suzuki’s primary mode of expressing the themes that he’s been obsessed with ever since he sat in the director’s chair.

After almost 50 years of working in the Japanese film industry Seijun Suzuki premiered Operetta Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon) at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Although admired by the film community it nonetheless was forgotten and buried under the few accolades that the film and its director received. Princess Raccoon being neither a gonzo crime picture nor an austere art film seemed to cater to only the most devoted Suzuki follower. Blending traditional and contemporary art forms the film is a confusing mash-up of styles that may take some time for the viewer to get used to but repeated viewings of this film will reveal a magnum opus, a picture that encapsulates what Suzuki the artist was obsessed with throughout his entire career.

Structured like a fable, the story is quite simple. Prince Amechiyo, played by Jo Odagiri, is in danger from his father, Azuchi Momoyama (Mikijiro Hira), after usurping him as the most beautiful man in the kingdom.  To escape his grim fate Amechiyo finds sanctuary in the Tanuki Palace where the eponymously named Princess Raccoon (Zhang Ziyi) resides. Although we are warned at the start of the film that “No man should love a raccoon.”  Amechiyo does not follow that simple line of logic and a romance begins to blossom between Amechiyo and the Princess.  And this Grimm fairy tale soon turns into a baroque retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story.

As he’s done in previous films before, Suzuki takes the typical love story and upturns it by peppering Princess Raccoon with his unique and playful sensibility.  Bestiality for the average person may not be a pleasant thought, but by couching this unique sexual predilection in a storybook fantasy world Suzuki is ironically able to deal with his characters more honestly through theatrical artifice.

The basic stylistic and thematic tropes present in many of Suzuki’s earlier films can easily be spotted in Princess Raccoon.  There is the presentation of grotesque characters, a fascination with the hopeless vanity of ambition, and finally there is the obsession with the human sex-drive.  These tropes are embodied perfectly within the character of Azuchi Momoyama, who is much more of a typical Suzuki protagonist than the inoffensive Prince Amechiyo.  The reason for this may have been that by the time that Princess Raccoon went into production Jo Odagiri, although having already starred in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Akarui Mirai (Bright Future), was making a name for himself nbso online casino reviews in primarily more commercial fare.

Azuchi Momoyama though is both a philosophically and physically grotesque character.  Declaring at the start of the film that “All who threaten my beauty I will kill” the audience is made aware of Kan man vinde stort i blackjack ?Ja, der findes eksempler pa high stakes spillere som har vundet millioner. just how diseased his soul has become due to his vanity.  And if one still needed a clue as to how much of a monster Momoyama really is, then all the viewer would have to do is look at the physical features which Suzuki and makeup artist Isao Tsuge endow the character with.  Momoyama is more demon than man: his pale grayish complexion, long gray hair, and beady eyes lend the character a very demonic/vampiric look.  Then, of course, there is the way Mikijiro Hira plays Momoyama, his broad flamboyant gestures and posturing hearken back not to the subtle realism of screen acting but more towards the theatrical tradition of Kabuki.

Besides Momoyama, the only other character with any sort of depth in the film is Princess Raccoon herself.  Her character, hailing from the country of Cathay, is ostensibly a foreigner in the story.  Yet Suzuki’s reasons for calling attention to the Princess’s stranger-in-a strange-land status is not merely a comic jab at the fact that the actress playing her, Zhang Ziyi, was not only not Japanese but couldn’t speak a word of Japanese before production started.  Zhang’s plastic performance adds to the overall artifice in the film.  The Princess comes across more like a doll and the various set pieces in the film; the forest, the Tanuki Palace, Momoyama’s castle; are larger than life dollhouses for the characters to play in.

A key scene to understanding not only the overall love story in the film but also, I think, an audiences love/hate response to Suzuki’s work is one in which the Princess tells Amechiyo, who is admiring some morning glories, that the light emanating from the fireflies is used to trick the flowers into blooming.  The Prince, amazed by the deception, remarks that it is a “beautiful misunderstanding”.  This scene in itself hearkens back to an earlier scene in which, during Amechiyo’s first meeting with the Princess, he commented on the fact that he couldn’t understand what the Princess was saying.  The Princess demurely responds back by saying “You will comprehend the tongue once our hearts relate to each other.”  Then she poses a question to Amechiyo, “Did you come to me, or I to you?” , thus reiterating the storybook quality of the film by reminding the audience that fate has pretty much written the characters lives already and that contemporary ideas like character motivation and free will don’t belong in Suzuki’s film.

If the American director Samuel Fuller is considered a primitive, then Seijun Suzuki should be categorized as a primordial.  While Fuller relied on the pulp aesthetic to deliver dramatic punch to his story. Suzuki has always relied on the bare essence of film grammar, specifically color, movement, and editing, to tell his stories, in Suzuki’s films, style is content.  Thus, narrative questions are left unanswered such as: Why does Amechiyo love the Princess?  What is the frog of paradise, and why is it the only thing that can save the Princess?  As an audience, we are frustrated by Suzuki since many moviegoers in the West prize narrative cohesion above all else and look down upon production design as merely window dressing.  However, Suzuki shows with his films that the three-act structure is not the only game in town and that visual literacy involves not just cramming props and actors into a shot, but carefully choosing what should be included and excluded in the frame.  Although many cinephiles label Suzuki’s style as belonging to the comic book aesthetes, he is really more of a ukiyo-e artist in that he constructs scenes built out of splashes of primary colors, grotesque details, and the dichotomy between the upper and lower classes.  Not to mention the fact that ukiyo-e artists were, like Suzuki, working primarily in a commercial/populist medium.

The musical numbers in the film, which borrow liberally from classic American musicals like the works of Vincente Minnelli, Powell and Pressburger masterpieces like The Red Shoes, and even Japanese films like the final scene in Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi (The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi), have had a polarizing effect on audiences.  Many viewers look at them and scoff at their crudeness and campy execution and, to be honest, the film’s musical numbers are crude, campy, and oftentimes too static to even be called musical numbers.  Yet the rehearsal-like quality of these song-and-dance sequences reveal that the 80-plus year old director was not afraid to embrace new styles, like hip-hop and pop music, and blend it with more traditional forms, like Kabuki and enka, even if his experiments didn’t always yield positive results.

It has been stipulated that Princess Raccoon is Seijun Suzuki’s last film, due to the director’s failing health and, if that truly is the case, then the film is a fitting end.  Princess Raccoon, like the best Suzuki films, is riddled with arresting images and although many will be left cold and baffled by the story.  For the Suzuki devotee, it will be one of his unsung masterpieces; a film that embraces all styles and all traditions regardless of where and when they came from, proving that, in this new global era, that the boundaries between East and West no longer matter.