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Seijun Suzuki, Director Of Delirious Thrillers, Dies At Age 93

Director Seijun Suzuki, center, died last week at age 93. He's seen here with actors Zhang Ziyi, left, and Joe Odagiri, right, as they arrive for a screening at the Cannes film festival in 2005.
Michel Euler

Filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, whose blend of pop-art, noir crime and peculiar cool is credited with inspiring directors from John Woo and Quentin Tarantino to Jim Jarmusch, has died. These days, Suzuki's Branded to Kill is widely seen as a masterpiece; when he made the absurdist thriller in 1967, he was fired from Nikkatsu studios.

That firing has become legendary in art-film circles, as the studio reportedly cited the "incomprehensibility" of Branded to Kill. For a sense of how fully Suzuki's reputation recovered, consider what Nikkatsu said in announcing the director's death Wednesday:

"We hereby express our deepest condolence and our profound gratitude and respect for his lifelong work."

Suzuki died early last week of after a battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the studio says. He was 93.

Born in 1923, Suzuki came to film-making after struggling to find a career in post-war Japan. During World War II, he served in the Imperial Navy and survived being shipwrecked twice.

By the time he made cinematic history in the late 1960s, Suzuki had turned out dozens of films for Nikkatsu, graduating from workmanlike crime dramas to incorporate avant-garde elements and develop a striking visual style.

Shot in black and white, Branded to Kill followed close on the heels of Tokyo Drifter, a stylized thriller with eye-popping color and a jazzy score. Both films were made as his studio bosses attempted to force Suzuki to tone down his design and narrative flourishes — an attempt that only seems to have prompted the director to dig deeper into his bag of tricks.

Here's how BBC film critic Mark Kermode describes Branded to Kill:

"Initially envisaged as a fairly straightforward Yakuza story about a hitman who goes on the run after botching a murderous assignment, Suzuki's deranged masterpiece proceeds to bend everything out of shape; narratively, visually, conceptually.

"The result so appalled Nikkatsu that they fired Suzuki, claiming that his movies made 'no sense, and no money.' "

One of the elements that likely made zero sense to studio executives has become one of the film's most-loved details, as its central character (Joe Shishido as a marked hitman) repeatedly huffs fresh-cooked rice in near-fetishistic fashion. That motif, Suzuki has said, was simply his way of incorporating the mandatory product placement of a rice cooker into the movie.

Discussing Branded to Kill in an essay for the Criterion Collection reissue, American musician John Zorn wrote about how he happened to discover the film while watching late-night TV in 1984.

"I was not at all prepared for what I was about to see, and I remember spending much of the following hour or so riveted to the screen with my mouth open," Zorn wrote. "That night changed my life and set me on a journey to explore the darker side of a culture known predominantly for its classical beauty."

In that film and Suzuki's similarly praised Tokyo Drifter, Zorn wrote, "each shot is a masterpiece of Japanese design."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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