Seijun Suzuki maybe most well known for his 1967 weird hitman themed existential crime movie Branded to Kill but the film almost cost him his career and definitely did cost him his job at Nikkatsu after studio bosses lamented that his films made no sense and no money. The next decade saw Suzuki involved in a complex set of legal battles and unable to sit in the director’s chair. The positive result of all this is that he obviously had some time to save up all his crazy so he could put it all into his personal statement of rebirth – Zigeunerweisen. Inspired by Hyakken Uchida’s novel Sarasate no Ban, Zigeunerweisen is a surreal and nightmarish journey through Taisho Era Japan as seen through Seijun Suzuki’s very idiosyncratic gift for storytelling.
As far as the plot goes, it begins with two men listening to a record of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen on which it sounds as if someone says something before the music starts but neither can quite make it out. It transpires that the two men are Aochi, a Westernised professor of German and his old university friend Nakasago who has become something of a wanderer. The pair are reunited in a small fishing village where Nakasago is implicated in the death of a local woman who had apparently fallen in love with him (something which seems to happen to him a lot). After Aochi manages to make all the charges go away with his “I’m a professor don’t you know!” routine, the pair retire to a local inn where they insist on getting the one geisha in the place who’s just returned from her brother’s funeral to come and cheer them up. Later, Aochi is stunned to discover that Nakasago has got married to a noble woman but even more surprised when he realises the wife looks exactly like the geisha from the sea side town! Dualities build upon dualities with an ever multiplying sequence of bizarre love triangles as dreams and reality continue to become ever more indistinct. That’s not to mention the recurrent presence of a blind singing trio, a sister-in-law in a coma and that the main character may or may not be dead the whole time….
The Taisho Era, 1912 -1926 in our dating system, was a short lived historical time period as the Emperor Taisho was in poor health. A little like Weimar Germany, this brief period has taken on a sheen of tragic romanticism, innocent and decadent at the same time – safe from the chaos of the Meiji Era which saw rapid changes resulting from Japan’s emergence from centuries of isolation, but also a time of youthful exuberance before the darkness of the Showa Era’s militaristic bent took hold. Aochi seems to represent an intellectual, civilised Western looking outlook with his European clothing, house and free spirited wife whereas Nakasago represents a more primal force with his traditional dress, Japanese style house in the middle of nowhere and, when he marries, traditional Japanese wife who dresses in kimono and stays home all day waiting for her husband’s return. However, Nakasago also gives full vent to his passions leaving his wife at home to go wandering and break a few hearts along the way. He uses and abuses women with no thought at all – he simply takes what he wants from them and moves on. He cares nothing for so called traditional morality or the rules of society, he is quite literally a law unto himself. Where Aochi thinks, Nakasago does.
As for feeling? Maybe neither of them are particularly engaged in any kind of emotional activity. Adding to the film’s dreamlike quality is a kind of permanent listlessness. A pervading sense of ennui which seems to say that none of this is really of any consequence. Logical sense has no real place here – we’re suddenly in a cave mid conversation, figures appear and disappear from the frame without reason or warning and characters which were once fully grown adults are suddenly children. Oh, and the murder / suicide victim at the beach? she died because six crabs emerged from her nether regions. There are also constant allusions to death – most obviously through Nakasago’s skeleton fetish which is certainly one of his more outlandish (and disturbing) qualities. That’s not to mention the title track itself Zigeunerweisen and its strange recurrence in the plot where the inability to decipher its mysterious message takes on an unsupportable level of importance. Alive or dead? Awake or dreaming? Are those things even mutually exclusive?
What does it all mean then? Absolutely no idea – but that’s OK. Zigeunerweisen throws up mirrors everywhere, demonstrating the curious symmetry of life. Dualities abound, the real and the unreal intersect in strange and inseparable ways. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing absolute – all things consist of other things. All moments truly are one moment, coexisting on a vast plane uncrossable by will but nevertheless traversable (or so the bizarre blind trio children would have you believe with their strangely anachronistic Manchurian war song). Suzuki is obviously uninterested in concrete answers, but as in many things it’s the questions themselves which become the most interesting.