With a formidable filmography of over fifty titles (most of them “Nikkatsu mood action” flicks, named after the studio), director Seijun Suzuki was renowned for crime, blood, and honour sagas, rather than for subtle character studies. “Underworld Beauty” may not have resonance of Kurosawa's “High and Low”, but who's complaining? It's a tasty bowl of spicy noodles from a street vendor rather than a Japanese tea ceremony, and there's nothing wrong with that.
The characters are familiar: The just-out-of-the-joint gangster with old fashioned ideas about honour. The crime boss with a significantly shakier concept of honour. The buddy who was crippled when a heist went bad, and hid kid sister with dubious morals. When a group of bandits (with scarves over their faces, Western-movie style) interrupt a stolen diamond deal, somebody swallows the diamonds, walks off a rooftop, and how does one discreetly remove diamonds from a corpse in the morgue? Well, there are ways, if you're willing to be creative…
The cast wanders all over Yokohama and Tokyo and the swooping camera catches it all. There are some deliciously weird stylistic touches - the Yakuza members wear creaseless 1920's Chicago suits. The score features Charleston-era wah-wah trombones from time to time. The mannequin factory filled with featureless nude women just makes it all a little more surreal.
And dark. Connoisseurs of crisp, high contrast black and white will be in their element - when you see a man dressed in black in a black sewer taking a black gun out of a black hidey-hole over a river of black water, American film noir might just as well be greyscale. Given all the darkness, it's ironic that so much of the action revolves around shiny diamonds. But diamonds are only a few steps removed from plain old coal (in geological terms), which is rather black and burns quite nicely, and the problem of burning diamonds comes up repeatedly.
There aren't any extras on the disc, not even a trailer, but there are good liner notes by Tatsu Akoi that sum up Suzuki's strengths and Nikkatsu's rise and fall. Akoi suggests that Suzuki was underrated in his time, which is true - he understood the tough-guy ethos perfectly, with its reputation of honour among thieves. If you're the kind of man who sings like a canary just because you get thrown into a rack of mannequin heads, you'll get what you deserve in the end.
HVE's Seijun Suzuki collection includes 'Kanto Wanderer,' 'Tattooed Life,' and 'Underworld Beauty.'
© 2004 Michael John Derbecker