Seijun Suzuki has been known for his over-the-top stylistic approach to gangster and yakuza films, most famously with his cult classics Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). His style, developed over the years of his lengthy career, truly came to a head with Zigeunerweisen, an adaptation of Hyakkei Uchida’s novel Disk of Sarasate. While the film is still overshadowed by his earlier works, it remains one of his finest achievements.
The film follows Aochi (Toshiya Fujita) and Nakasaga (Yoshio Harada) former fellow professors who are haunted by the mystery behind the unidentifiable words uttered in a recording of Pablo de Sarasate’s celebrated composition Zigeunerweisen. As they try to determine what was said, they are interrupted by series of events that blur realities through apparitions. Throughout the film, it is Aochi who seems to be the focus while being haunted by Nakasago’s pursuit of the macabre. Aochi’s confrontation with Nakasago’s strange obsessions set the film’s overall tone. Aochi’s consciousness is struggling to get out of the darkness which shroud’s Nakasago.
There is a consistent haunting presence in the film, but it does not always stem from the same object. The mystery of the sound in the Sarasate record, the one that is shown just after the opening credits, haunts even the next scene. It makes one think of any possible connection between the man sitting on the train, who is Aochi on his way to an island for vacation, and the blind beggars riding in the same car. The haunting is being displaced from one object to another. A significant amount of screen time is used to highlight the three beggars as haunted: they are featured in some of the scenes singing sensual songs. For Nakasago, the combination of the blind beggars, two men and a woman, is a dangerous one. His comment also reflects their situation on the island as they get mixed up with a mourning geisha named O-Ine (Naoko Otani). What haunts Aochi and Nakasago during their stay on the island follows them to their own homes. But now, their families are involved.
Zigeunerweisen feels more like a ghost story most of the time as it follows a lengthy haunting by a certain specter that does not have a definite form. The specter comes alive through Suzuki’s masterful handling of surreal scenes. For example, when the film simulates a trick of a mystical ghost-fox when Aochi is trapped inside Nakasago’s home, the house is lit (and unlit) as though it is alive. It breathes through the lights. In the revelation of the intention of Sono (also played by Naoko Otani), Nakasago’s wife, to trap Aochi in their home, the wall breaks down and is replaced by a wall of fire, exposing Sono’s ghastly nature.
The film’s specter leads towards undesirable ends: Nakasago asks for Aochi’s bones when he dies, not as a specimen, but as part of his obsession with death. In this quest for one’s skeleton, the film finds its unity between these opposing characters. It is an obsession which unmasks the guilt of both of them. The horror in the film explores each of the characters’ inner desires. As with the greatest of Japanese horror stories, the horror serves as an instrument to highlight a human quality which straight-forward dramatic narratives telling can never illustrate.
Zigeunerweisen is the first part of Suzuki’s trilogy of films set in Taisho period. It’s theme of haunting fits well this period of mixed cultural influences in Japan, which paved way fir a certain hybridity that is characteristic of its current milieu. It is as complex as a dream, with the otherworldly elements mixed with a setting from a very complicated era in their history. The film proves Suzuki’s mastery as a storyteller. Years of working on stylish genre films ultimately gave fruition to this work in a manner which is still remarkably his, but also unique for this specific film. There is no better tribute to this one of a kind filmmaker than to show this crowning glory of a film again to a receptive audience.
Zigeunerweisen is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS 2017 on Sunday 23 at Japan Society at 4:15pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Japan Society website.