Sunday, February 18, 2018

Zigeunerweisen (1980)

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Notable Cast: Harada Yoshio, Fujita Toshiya, Otani Naoko, Okusu Michiyo, Maro Akaji

Zigeunerweisen is quite the enigmatic film. It's simple, yet incredibly complex, defying any concise description you try to pin on it. It is surreal, but also mundane; it is slow, but endlessly fascinating. These ambiguous feelings are the best way to describe the film, as odd as that may sound; Zigeunerweisen is the epitome of the film you have to see to understand what it is. Even then it refuses to completely reveal itself, but like any piece of art, this is a large part of its charm. Zigeunerweisen is both a departure from previous Seijun Suzuki films and the culmination of what had come before. After his firing from Nikkatsu in 1967, Suzuki spent many years blacklisted and floundering, and it was Zigeunerweisen that ended this period. It was nominated for nine Japanese Academy Awards and won four, and it began the critical re-assessment of the iconoclast director.

Zigeunerweisen begins with a long, uninterrupted shot of a 78rpm record spinning on a Victrola gramophone, playing Pablo de Sarasate's 1878 composition Zigeunerweisen. The recording contains an inaudible voice, which Aochi (Fujita Toshiya), a professor of German, and Nakasago (Harada Yoshio), a former colleague turned vagabond, try to decipher. Despite the film's title, this recording doesn't bear much narrative weight in the film. It is more of a jumping-off point, and a symbol for various elements of the film. What it means and why it's given such prominence is up for your interpretation. My immediate thought was that it signaled the film's deliberate and specific pacing. Zigeunerweisen runs 144 minutes, and like a record, it moves at its prescribed speed throughout. It is a slow-moving film, but it is far from boring as long as you're within its groove.

Suzuki is known for the surrealism he infused into his Nikkatsu genre films (against the studio's wishes), and Zigeunerweisen showcases Suzuki finally unhindered by studio constraints. Surrealism affects every aspect of the production, leaving the viewer to piece it all together. Perhaps the most interesting facet of Zigeunerweisen is that while it's surreal, it is not visually flamboyant. As a period piece set during Japan's Taisho era (1912--1926), it is tied to reality in tangible ways, but the surreal is always present at the edges. As the film moves on, it raises questions that affect the audience's understanding of past events, further complicating the current moment and all future moments. It makes sense that the film reinvigorated Suzuki's career, because the mastery on display here is undeniable. Whether you like the film or not, any discerning film fan must admit that Zigeunerweisen is finely crafted with remarkable skill, and could have only come from the mind of Seijun Suzuki.

I have danced around the film's plot, because it is not all that important in terms of reviewing the film. Basically, Aochi and Nakasago are old colleagues who have gone down different paths in life. Aochi is a straight-laced man who follows the rules and lives a normal life. At some point, Nakasago may have been this way as well, but when we meet him he is a wanderer who lives spontaneously. As friends and intellectuals, they engage in deep conversation and travel the countryside as a sort of yin/yang pair of complementing opposites. Aochi typically wears foreign suits, while Nakasago always (or almost always) wears more traditional Japanese robes. Later in the film, when they are both married, their wives and homes also reflect these basic aesthetics associated with each character. From what I understand, the Taisho period was one where Western culture was really beginning to influence Japanese culture, and there is definitely commentary on this dichotomy laden throughout Zigeunerweisen. Even my attempt to describe the basics of the film's plot has devolved into symbolism and social commentary, and to be honest this is more reflective of the film's nature than anything else.

I mentioned that Zigeunerweisen is not a visually flamboyant film, but that's not to say it isn't beautiful. The word "depth" resonated in my head while I watched the film, and nearly every image contained an astonishing amount of depth (both visually and symbolically/intellectually). The camera is constantly peering through open windows or doors, and oftentimes something is happening in both foreground and background. Suzuki chose to shoot Zigeunerweisen in the classic ratio of 1.33:1, and this squarish ratio adds another layer to the composition. The screen is itself a window into the world of the film, and in today's world of 1.78:1 TV sets being the norm, the necessary black borders of a 1.33:1 presentation only call more attention to this. Like the characters listening to Zigeunerweisen and attempting to decipher the words barely heard, the audience watches the film Zigeunerweisen and attempts to decipher Suzuki's meanings hidden in surrealism and ambiguity.

If you love the medium of film, Zigeunerweisen is a unique film that confounds as much as it enlightens. I can't wait to watch it again, and I'm equally excited about seeing the 2nd and 3rd films in Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy, all available in a wonderful set from Arrow Academy released in 2017.

Written By Will Kouf

Will Kouf is a writer and editor over at Silver Emulsion. His dedication to foreign cinema and his running features are written pieces any cinephile should be following. Check out his work here at SILVER EMULSION

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