Monday, November 15, 2010


Tajima hates yakuza.

The Setup
Tajima (Jo Shishido), is a cocky, resourceful private eye who owns the Detective Bureau 2-3 of the title. For reasons never explained, he manifests a deep-seated hate for the yakuza, an emotion that primes his motivational pump throughout the film. “If there are less yakuza, the world will be a better place,” he tells Captain Kumagaya (Nobuo Kaneko). The film kicks off with a yakuza gang making an unauthorized munitions withdrawal from an American military base, only to be ambushed by a competing gang riding atop a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck. The blistering gun battle leaves a score of bodies and dozens of bottles of the world’s second-favorite soft drink riddled with bullets.

Yakuza have no love for Tajima.

With the police seemingly unable to deal with the carnage, Tajima sees an opportunity to show them up and wreak havoc among the criminal ranks. He convinces a skeptical Kumagaya to issue him a gun and a fake ID so he can infiltrate one of the gangs battling for control of the local gun-running trade. Posing as an ex-con, he befriends mid-level criminal Manabe (Tamio Kawachi) in order to get close to yakuza boss Hatano (Kinzo Shin), whose criminal potency is offset by his sexual impotence. Tajima plants a microphone on Hatano’s unsuspecting girlfriend Chiaki (Reiko Sasamori) to gather evidence on the gang, even as she keeps him under surveillance. His sleuthing ultimately leads him to Beniki, Hatano’s superior, who finds buyers for the guns under his guise as a respectable businessman.

Following a number of surreptitious schemes, stylish shootouts and sexual subversion, Tajima’s cover is blown and he’s marked for elimination. The quick-thinking detective hastily improvises a new backstory for himself, but Hatano isn’t buying. He locks Tajima and Chiaki (who’s revealed her hatred of the mob boss) in an underground garage, pumps gallons of motor oil into it and sets the mother on fire. However, Hatano doesn’t realize that he’s just handed Tajima a fuse with which to ignite a battle royal between the gangs — a ferocious encounter fought with guns and samurai swords that brings the film to a spectacularly convulsive conclusion.

Tajima wins the staredown.

The Payoff
The early 1960s was a transitional period for Seijun Suzuki. After churning out numerous yakuza films for Nikkatsu throughout the 1950s, the director began to rebel against the creative limitations imposed by the studio. Fed up with clich├ęd scenarios and adherence to stylistic conventions, Suzuki began infiltrating anarchic visual flourishes to make things more interesting for himself and his audiences. Nineteen-sixty-three is widely regarded as the year Suzuki started to became Suzuki with the release of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! Although it doesn’t scale the delirious heights of Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) — the latter’s visual and narrative anarchy got him fired from Nikkatsu — the film still turns the yakuza genre on its head through Suzuki’s hyperbolic approach.

Manabe’s girl engages in psychosexual foreplay.

One of the supreme visual stylists of 1960s Japanese action cinema, even his lesser films are filled to overflowing with ingenious, dynamic compositions that would do Orson Welles proud. Suzuki was an undisputed master of the widescreen format, and he displays that gift from start to finish in Detective Bureau 2-3. Consider the shot early in the film when Tajima is trying to sell Captain Kumagaya on his undercover scheme. Suzuki places the actors’ heads aggressively close to the camera and at opposite ends of the frame, allowing the empty space in the middle to evoke the huge gulf of their mutual antipathy and mistrust. In less capable hands such framing would be inert and stilted, but Suzuki makes it work through the intensity of the performers and the precisely judged rhythm of his cutting.

Similar examples abound — amazing corridor images that seem to play with the laws of physics; shots crammed to bursting with obdurate faces; surreal compositions of guns and disembodied hands; a shattered mirror reflection of Chiaki that evokes her emotional disaffection; a beautifully composed shot of Tajima hiding in a toilet stall that embraces the abstraction of empty space. Suzuki even throws in a Sergio Leone-like extreme close-up on the baleful eyes of a yakuza heavy — one year before Leone’s first spaghetti western.

Mexican standoff — Japanese style.

The director’s lighting and color schemes were also becoming more daring and surreal by 1963. In this respect he was abetted by cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and lighting director Kyosuke Yoshida. The scenes in the apartment where Manabe and his girlfriend meet for their romantic trysts are imaged in super-saturated yellows and reds. The flagrantly unrealistic colors dazzle the eye and underscore the sexual heat and perversity of the characters’ relationship. Elsewhere, Suzuki and his collaborators turn a jazz club into a riot of red, lending a disturbing visual frisson to Tajima’s attempt to keep Chiaki off balance by pretending to make love to her.

Suzuki further pushes the narrative envelope through his sardonic, tongue-in-cheek attitude. Much of the action is imbued with outlandish black humor: When Manabe is about to be released from police custody, dozens of rival gang members wait openly outside police headquarters with long-range rifles to pick him off on sight. And the director conjures up a magical bit of business by having Tajima and Manabe aim their guns at one another in the kind of point blank standoff made famous years later by Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo. 

Bad guys wear the coolest shades.

The Lawless
Hatano is one of the more memorable villains in Suzuki’s filmography. Played by the cadaverous, evil-looking Shin, he projects guile and avarice in equal measures. Hatano is rightfully suspicious of Tajima from the start; he not only has his men check on his bona fides, he also sets Chiaki to spy on him. Like any good yakuza boss, he keeps his thoughts to himself and his emotions under control. That is, until he learns of Chiaki’s betrayal, when he finally lets down the mask to reveal his jealousy, anger, frustration and impotence. One almost feels a twinge of compassion for him until he ignites the inferno that threatens to melt her poutingly sexy features.

A mid-level soldier in Hatano’s crew, Manabe fulfills the narrative function of allowing Tajima to insinuate himself into the gang. But Suzuki is more interested in filming Manabe’s sadomasochistic liaisons with his girlfriend. “My love! I was so worried,” she greets him upon his release from prison. Manabe throws her to floor, curses her, accuses her of betrayal, then flings himself on top of her as they make uninhibited love under Tajima’s jaded gaze.

Guns don’t argue.

The Lawful
Shishido was already an established action star by 1963, thanks in part to cheek-augmentation surgery that altered his features for a fuller, more rounded look. In addition to his striking appearance, Shishido was versatile enough to play out-and-out villains as well as enjoyably tarnished heroes. Like Suzuki, he was frustrated with routine scripts, and always tried to inject something extra into his performances. This made him the perfect leading man for the iconic director. He plays Tajima with confident swagger, taking obvious enjoyment in posing as a yakuza while playing both ends against the middle. Shishido shows his hipster side, too, particularly in a nightclub scene where his ex-girlfriend is the featured attraction. Fearing that she might recognize him and blow his cover, he jumps onstage and joins her in an extended song-and-dance number, singing lyrics that shatter the fourth wall to comment sardonically on the situation. It’s absurd and astonishing, and one of the coolest moments in the film. The remaining actors provide competent support, but the film is thoroughly dominated by Shishido’s manic energy and cynical charisma. Coupled with Suzuki’s supercharged aesthetic, it all adds up to 88 minutes of combustible, eye-popping fun.

Color-coded killing.

• Suzuki signs his name in a bold pre-credit sequence distinguished by its sudden violence, confident staging and whiplash editing. His subversive genius is manifest in the bullets that enfilade the Pepsi-Cola truck, a shining symbol of postwar American colonialism.

• Another dynamic shootout takes place in a scrapyard where Hatano’s men attempt to kill the now-exposed Tajima and the suddenly expendable Manabe. The skirmish gains added drama from its nocturnal setting and Suzuki’s unfailingly inventive camera setups. While not quite in the John Woo bullet ballet class, it’s miles ahead of most other crime films made in 1963. And the hot lead-cold steel showdown that concludes the film is a glorious example of the director’s super-heated, over-the-top action aesthetic.

• Manabe, on the run, flees to his girlfriend’s pad to hide out. Even though he’s under threat of death, he’s so caught up in the thrall of their depraved role-playing that he fails to spot the unseen gunman in the room. He soon finds out while embracing her, however, when a shot suddenly rings out and flings him to the floor like a rag doll. His girl gets one too, plus one more for good measure, as she joins her man in the afterlife.

Who ordered takeout?

The Vernacular
Tajima: Hi, Captain!”
Captain Kumagaya: “Here to peddle tips? Jackass!”

Hatano [after Tajima has pulled a gun on him]: “What are you doing?”
Tajima: “I was wrong. I thought you were going to kill me.”
Hatano: “One should not kill someone useful.”

Beniki: “Can we trust him?”
Hatano: “Trust? It’s impossible.”

Chiaki: “Don’t look at me like that. I’m a virgin, but my heart is that of a prostitute.”

Tajima [to Chiaki]: “Tonight, he was smarter than me.”
Beniki [eavesdropping]: “Exactly. I heard your conversation. Finally, I’m going to win. You’re going to burn up along with the proof. Until then, enjoy yourselves!”

Chiaki reflects on her unhappy past.
The End Credits
Director: Seijun Suzuki; screenplay: Gan Yamazaki; producer: Shozo Ashida; music: Harumi Ibe; cinematography: Shigeyoshi Mine; lighting: Kyosuke Yoshida; editing: Akira Suzuki

Jo Shishido (Tajima); Reiko Sasamori (Chiaki); Tamio Kawachi (Manabe);
Nobuo Kaneko (Captain Kumagaya); Kinzo Shin (Hatano); Naomi Hoshi; Asao Sano; Yuko Kusunoki; Kotoe Hatsui

Sleuthing and smoking.