Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Ink of the Yakuza

No matter how far you run, you can't escape your tattoos, which can be a problem if you have the kind of tattoos Tetsu has in 1965's Tattooed Life (刺青一代). An uncommonly straightforward yakuza film from Seijun Suzuki, it keeps the experimental flourishes to a minimum. But there's plenty of Suzuki's unique voice and style to make this tale of two brothers trying to escape their past very effective.

Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) and his younger brother, Kenji (Kotobuki Hananomoto), work for a prominent yakuza family until the events that open the film. After Tetsu executes a hit for one prominent member of the family, that same boss decides to have Tetsu killed to cover his tracks. Things go wrong when Kenji steps in and kills that boss and his henchmen, so the brothers are forced to flee.

Like a lot of criminals who are trying to disappear when this film is set (1926), the brothers decide to make for Manchuria but after they're hustled out of their boat fare by a weird, boisterous man in an linen suit, they apply for work in a mine. Ironically, their own suits make them look too high class for the likes of the mine foreman and they're refused employment until the boss's sweet young sister-in-law, Midori (Masako Izumi), takes a liking to them and puts in a good word.

Tetsu and Midori are both attractive--Takahashi having the perfect striking, angular eyebrows for a young yakuza and Izumi is adorably earnest with her sexuality. In an effort to hide his tattoos, Tetsu never removes his shirt in front of anyone and Midori takes it as a perfect pretext to ask him to undress. She explains it's naturally because she wants the bragging rights to be the first one to see what's under his collarless white shirt, but she likely misunderstands why the request makes him so deeply flustered.

Kenji, meanwhile, wants to see Midori's older sister, Masayo (Hiroko Ito), the boss' wife, naked. He's certainly the most unusual character in the film--a shy and artistic youth, his brother, after beating up some of the miners for mocking Kenji's nude drawings, angrily explains the young man is different from the rest of them. The moralists of to-day's Internet age might join the miners in sniggering at the boy who seems awe struck at his first sight of the older woman when she loses one of her shoes at the creek where he's bathing.

He pleads to her for permission to sculpt her and to see her naked. Later, Kenji asks Tetsu if he has any memories of their mother who died when Kenji was an infant. There's some suggestion that his passion for an artistic study of an older woman's body is somehow related to this and there's some ambiguity how much of his spiritual feelings are mixed in this as well as in his sexual urges. The film never presents him with disgust or mockery, though, but as a strange innocent, one of several that Tetsu is eventually called upon to protect or avenge.

The finale is an extended action sequence, one of the best I've seen in a Suzuki film, that ought to rank high on the list of anyone who appreciates Japanese sword play in film. And you know it's coming, too, thanks to one of Suzuki's better cinematic ideas. When the light seems to go out and Tetsu, with his back to us, stands and his outer robe falls away to reveal a blue and white one that stands out against the darkness, and he starts to walk, you know a lot of people are going to die.

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