The Taisho Trilogy Review
Japanese history is fascinating. For a long period between 1604 and 1868 Japan essentially cut itself off from the rest of the world to develop its own culture, art and society completely separate from outside influence called the Edo Period. Then, from 1868 Japan finally opened its borders and in came a chaotic influx of fashion art and economics during what is called the Meiji period that lasted until 1912 before settling down into the Taisho period that was followed by the more militaristic and Emperial Showa era during World War II. This Arrow Academy collection of Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za and Yumeji are collectively known as The Taisho Trilogy.
So what is The Taisho Trilogy about? Well, that is tricky to pin down, mainly because director Suzuki is a particularly incredible storyteller. I will get into the hallmarks of his authorial style in a bit, but for now, a brief synopsis of the films that comprise this collection: Firstly, Zigeunerweisen, released in 1980, follows two intellectuals from a military academy and their sexual exploits with each other's wives as well as a famous recording of Zigeunerweisen by violinist Pablo de Sarasate and an inaudible mumble. 1981's Kagero-za is a ghost story that follows a playwright’s relationship with a woman who may already be dead. The final chapter, made in 1991, is Yumeji - a semi-biographical film that follows the famous Japanese painter Takehisa Yumeji and his various liaisons with the women who were his models.
Though each of these follow different characters and different stories, there are stylistic and thematic threads that connect the three films into the trilogy which act more or less like skeletons from which Suzuki can hang some of the most gorgeous, unsettling and confusing set-pieces in Japanese cinema. Seijun Suzuki is known as a surreal filmmaker, a man who, when working on B-movies for major Japanese studio Nikkatsu, blended his nihilistic, irreverent humour with classical genre pictures adding a massive dose of dream logic for good measure. This is what we get here, in each film one is presented with a series of scenes that don't quite add up, dead characters come back to life, there are impossible movements, strange asides in haunted theatres and dream sequences. This can leave an audience puzzled and unsettled. It is obvious that something is going on, but the audience is only allowed in at ground level allowing for confusion in a very existential way. Are characters ghosts or demons? All of which made me incredibly unnerved and there weren't even any jump scares.
Suzuki constructs his films in a manner to frighten and yet entrance, and he is helped by some of the most opulent cinematography I have seen for a while. The Taisho period was a time when Japanese architecture, fashion and art melded with its western counterparts to create something akin to America's roaring twenties... on acid. Swirling, rich colours abound in each film in an almost painterly approach. Suzuki hired Kasue Nagatsuka to be his cinematographer for Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za while Junichi Fukisawa was behind the camera on Yumeji. These flamboyant visuals are paired with some creative editing by Nobutake Kamiya (Zigeunderweisen) and Akria Suzuki (Kagero-za and Yumeji). The team behind Suzuki bring their A-game in all departments creating a series of films that look, sound, and flow superbly.
However, visuals and absurd, surreal narratives don't always mean success; what of the characters. Though it would take far too long to list all of the actors and characters, a few stand out. Firstly, from Zigeunerweisen, Wild Man Nakasago, played by the similarly wild Yoshio Harada, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery; whether a man or a demon, he is terrifying and engaging all at the same time. While Naoko Otani pulls double duty as Koine (a geisha that our two leads become obsessed with) and Sono Nakasago's diminutive wife, is superbly haunting as both. In Yumeji Kenji Sawada takes the lead in an exquisitely camp performance of the famous painter. There are no real standouts in Kagero-za but that doesn't mean that the performances were bad, it was just that it felt more like an ensemble that came together to create this bizarre haunted tale.
I really enjoyed these films. They provided me something that I had never seen before, but it was something that I knew I was missing from my cinematic experience. They form a very obtuse series of films and at times they tend to drag, as all have run times well over two hours, but the visuals, the characters and the feeling of existential dread that permeates The Taisho Trilogy made the wading through the films' more laborious moments worth it.
Arrow Academy have done a decent job in the construction of these discs as usual. The menus are laid out in the ways that one would expect from one of their releases: simple and clear, with an emphasis on user-friendliness. The subtitles are incredibly clear which is very handy especially when every little word or phrase could be important to impart some integral aspect of the film(s), especially as there is only one language track - the original Japanese.
However, the true star is the transfer itself. I have already said that the cinematography in all three films is lavish and sumptuous, but in 1080p on the Blu-ray it sings, I could very easily pause this film at any point and stare at the gorgeous colour and framing.
These are a series of films that need extras. If I hadn't watched critic Tony Rayns' introduction to each of the films I would not have fully understood the mode in which to view them. As I have said in the review of the films themselves, they are a surreal, haunting and unnerving experience that deals with a lot of concepts that would be unknown to most western viewers like the period in which the film was set, actors and artists which the latter two films revolve around. In fact, I would say that his contribution to the disc is more important than the Making-of featurette, the trailers or even the interview with Seijun Suzuki himself.
This isn't a bad thing either, rather a film that needs explaining or further exploration is an experience that I as a film-lover live for. I obsessively watch extras to see if I missed anything, to hear others' interpretations of it, to see how it was made, and how others react to it. I feel that these are needed for more impactful discussions on film and the fact that they are easily accessible on DVD and Blu-ray is something that I am always grateful for.
There is no less is more when it comes to extras, so while I am disappointed that there are no video essays or audio commentaries I am happy with what Arrow has provided because it made this rather intimidating film series feel accessible for those without access to a library of Japanese history.
I am going to be honest; I find most art cinema to be pretentious and shallow, it eats up time and seeks to create a divide between what is perceived as worthwhile film and meaningless movies, as though art was a term used to denote quality rather than form. However, I can say that Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy is a unique, engaging, and almost magical experience. Its sumptuous visuals and mysterious narrative create a feeling of unease and tension that I couldn't shake for the rest of the day. These are films to savour and study; the initial viewing is great, but after watching the extras, the films open up before you. Like most Arrow releases, this is a niche purchase, but I guarantee that if you stick with them, these movies are challenging, unsettling and incredibly memorable.