Seijun Suzuki’s Arthouse Masterpieces — ‘The Taisho Trilogy’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

After being treated terribly by film studio Nikkatsu (for whom Suzuki would create some of his most popular pictures, including Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill), Seijun Suzuki set out to make art films of the highest order with his Taisho Trilogy. Set during the Taisho period in Japan (which ran from 1912 to 1926) and written by Yôzô Tanaka, the shortest of the three (Yumeji) is 128 minutes and together the trilogy lasts almost seven hours. That isn’t meant to discourage, but to emphasize how much you’re getting for your money with this collection.

Zigeunerweisen tells the story of two friends, one of whom (Yoshio Harada’s Nakasago) may be a murderer, and the love triangles that ensue when Nakasago marries Sono (Naoko Ôtani), a dead ringer for a geisha (also played by Ôtani) he was involved with at one time.

The film gets its name from a record by Sarasate which is famous for including a section where listeners can hear Sarasete’s voice but not what he’s saying. Nakasago and Aochi (Kisako Makishi) go on to discuss it at one point and critic Tony Rayns calls it a McGuffin in his introduction to the film. But it’s these needling questions and how they stump even the characters in these movies that make the Taisho Trilogy what it is. Later, Aochi mentions an incident with his wife (Kirin Kiki) where an unknown voice answered her and at first Nakasago doesn’t seem to take the mystery seriously. The more Aochi rejects his logical explanations, however, the more you see the mystery get under his skin. It’s these scenes which encapsulate what watching the Taisho Trilogy is like — even the characters express their befuddlement. Those who pay attention, though, are constantly rewarded, like when Nakasago follows a trio of blind beggars and later tells the story of what he saw.

In Kagero-Za, Matsuzaki (Yûsaku Matsuda) meets two women (this time played by different actresses: Eriko Kusuda and Michiyo Yasuda) who turn out to be married to the same man (Katsuo Nakamura), except the first wife (Kusuda) might be a ghost and the second wife (Yasuda) wants Matsuzaki to commit suicide with her.

Unlike Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-Za, which came out back to back in 1980 and 1981, Yumeji came out ten years later in 1991. While not a biopic (as Rayns makes sure to emphasize), Takehisa Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) was a real artist and Yumeji is arguably the most obtuse of the three films. Some of the plotlines include Yumeji’s fiancée, Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki), falling ill and Yumeji having an affair with Mrs. Wakiya (Tomoko Mariya). In the meantime, though, Mr. Wakiya (Harada) may or may not be dead and the man who potentially murdered him (Kazuhiko Hasegawa) is still on the loose.

What keeps Yumeji from getting off to a running start the way Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-Za do is Yumeji doesn’t have a mirror. Both Matsuzaki and Aochi have dark counterparts in Nakasago and Tamawaki (Nakamura), but while Mr. Wakiya could be called Yumeji’s counterpart in Yumeji, it’s a while before he makes an appearance. As a result, Yumeji is a lot less sympathetic than the other protagonists. While he doesn’t meet the monstrous heights of Nakasago — who is even filmed like a supernatural monster in some scenes — Nakasago has the benefit of being a charming devil, pulling an ear of corn out at a crime scene like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Yumeji is immature and the way female characters react to him also make him appear more abusive.

All three films are structured unusually and have elements of the supernatural (Zigeunerweisen toys with kitsune mythology, for example). Along with the bonus features already mentioned, Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with an interview with Suzuki and a “Making Of” featurette where you get to see Suzuki give the cast directions.

The Taisho Trilogy is available on Blu-Ray now from Arrow Films.

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