After being fired by Nikkatsu Studios after his many stylistic clashes there resulted in the wildly surreal mind trip Branded to Kill Japanese cult auteur Seijun Suzuki essentially became unemployable. Whether it was because he was black listed behind the scenes or other studios were simply reluctant to take on such a noted maverick with limited commercial appeal Suzuki simply disappeared from the scene following Branded to Kill, releasing only one film – a major critical and commercial flop – between 1967 and 1980. And when Suzuki did burst back on to the scene with 1980's Zigeunerweisen it was with a film produced entirely independently, a film Suzuki had to tour around the country himself in an inflatable dome when no established distributor was willing to put the film into theaters. The film became a major hit - winning best picture, director and actress awards at the Japanese Academy Awards – and launched the second half of Suzuki's prolific career.
Given the film's critical success and place in history its continued unavailability – it was not even available in Japan until 2001 – has left many scratching their heads but it actually makes a good amount of sense on a commercial level. Zigeunerweisen is Suzuki at his most pure, a film made without and studio parameters or genre demands. As a result it indulges all of the master's theatrical and experimental urges with none of the pulp noir influence that gives his Nikkatsu output its pop culture appeal. While Zigeunerweisen is undeniably a great work, certainly one of his best, it is also a deliberately difficult and challenging one. Suzuki has never been afraid to place demands upon his audience and Zigeunerweisen requires that the audience invest a good deal of time and energy into it.
Set in the Taisho period just before the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s Zigeunerweisen captures a culture in transition, a time when the traditional values of old Japan were being challenged by, and fused with, western influences. Representing the core of that tension are Aochi and Nakasago, close friends who work together as college professors. Beyond the fact that both are intelligent, educated men, it is difficult to see what the two have in common. Aochi has embraced western culture and lives a quiet, reserved life. Nakasago, on the other hand, is a wild haired, loudly drunk traditionalist given to tramping aimlessly around the country side a rough, careless treatment of women. When we first meet him Nakasago is under suspicion of murdering a fisherman's wife he had been having an affair with – Nakasago claims she committed suicide with both scenarios seeming equally possible – a situation Aochi rescues him from. When the duo both fall in love with a mourning geisha it launches them into a cycle of obsession, paranoia and betrayal, both of them entering into affairs with the other's wife.
Zigeunerweisen is unmistakably a Suzuki film from the very first frame, fully indulging the elaborate set design, theatrical lighting and broad, stage styled acting that the director has always favored. The film features a fistful of stunningly surreal images – from superimposed scarlet red crabs crawling out of a dead woman's groin to a blind minstrel adrift in a sea borne wash barrel – but the excess is reined in here with Suzuki talking in a consistent language of metaphor and image rather than simply goosing the audience with visual madness as he was prone to do in his Nikkatsu days.
When Kimstim announced that they would be releasing Suzuki's entire Taisho trilogy – this is the first of three thematically linked films – the president of the company gave every sign that they intended to treat the films right, talking at length about their historical importance and the extensive extras planned. Sadly the finished product shows a shocking lack of attention to detail in what can only be termed a substandard release. The first problem noticed is in the print essay, a brief piece setting the context for the film found filling the inside of the cover insert. When a piece like this sports obvious typos that could – and should – have been corrected by spending just a minute proof reading the thing before going to press it is not a good sign for what will be found within. And what's within is not good. Despite the cover claiming the film is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen the film is actually in 4:3. Furthermore the DVD appears to have been mastered off of a tape source, meaning that the image is soft throughout and frequently sports a good number of notably jagged edges. Quality visual presentation is always important but it is especially so when dealing with a stylist like Suzuki and this simply does not pass muster. Also problematic are the subtitles which, although clear and well translated, appear to be burned in to the print as they cannot be turned off and occasional display the same jagged edges that mark the rest of the transfer. The included interview with Suzuki is worthwhile but on the whole the presentation is far less than what the film deserves.