Friday, August 16, 2013

Cinema Obscura: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself

After my exhaustive retrospective of filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa a few years ago, the one title I could never get my hands on was his ultra obscure comedy/crime series "Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself". Thankfully, that problem has been remedied.

Nestled in the mid 90's when Kurosawa was heavily involved in creating diptych crime stories such as "The Serpent's Path" and "Eyes of the Spider" and especially his "Revenge" double feature, "Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself" was filmed and released for the home video market in Japan. The idea, six variations of life surrounding two low level yakuza gophers, expound on Kurosawa's fascination with subverting the same idea and story in a wildly divergent manner. Barely seen nowadays, his six part series obviously holds a soft spot in his heart, as Kurosawa himself told a website called EG in 2012 the following: "It makes me enormously happy to have someone talk to me about Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself. As I’ve just said, I really enjoyed making this series. If everything had been shot for the home video market, for me these are the true films in my career. From the time the series was made fifteen years ago, no one in Japan speaks about it, in good or bad terms. I’d never been interviewed about it or seen any analysis of it. It practically moves me to know that we can talk about Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself in France. It’s really while making these films for video that I finally understood that I was capable of making films as independently as my subsequent feature films, such as Cure [1997] or Charisma [1999]."

Like many series, "Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself" creates varying levels of satisfaction. Some episodes are much better than others and, save for a few cinematic tricks here or there, the films themselves are mainly devoid of identifying auteurist characteristics. The only constant factor, stars Sho Aikawa (long time Kurosawa collaborator) and Koyo Maeda get into various trouble and then wiggle their way out of it. Part a comedy routine but mostly just riffs on the yakuza genre, "Suit Yourself and Shoot Yourself" is most interesting for the episodic pit stops Kurosawa is now infamous for making- including his latest prject entitled "Penance" which was originally released as a five part film, but will most likely be edited down when and if it reaches these shores....which begs the question will we ever see the original version? Broken down by each episode:

Part 1 The Heist- Yuji (Sho Aikawa) and Kosaku (Koyo Maeda) are low level gangsters who both fall for the same girl, a teacher masquerading at night as a bar hostess. Not only does their relationship with this duplicitous woman bring them into drug smuggling and extortion, but a comical encounter with the local yakuza boss. As a Kurosawa film, “The Heist” is fairly straight forward, although one use of ultra slow motion hearkens to the slow-burn aesthetics that so heightened the tension in certain horror films such as “Pulse” and “Séance”. It’s also highly entertaining as this first pilot episode seems to be aimed squarely at the Godard period of “Band of Outsiders”, using the crime genre as a washboard for visual comedy.


Part 2 The Escape- Yuji and Kosaku are again entangled with the local yakuza when they inadvertently help a shy young man with his relationship problems- namely his involvement with two daughters of a mob boss. Less comically inspired than “The Heist”, “The Escape” feels even less like a Kurosawa film.


Part 3 The Loot- After Yuji and Kosaku inadvertently kill an old man they were sent to pick up, his granddaughter- as well as a host of other people including the cops and local yakuza- are hot on their tail as the secrets to a treasure map may be in their hands. Gaining some momentum with this third episode, Kurosawa’s deadpan variation on this Abbott and Costello pair of guys loosens up the energy and reveals some momentum for the series.


Part 4 The Gamble- Whether its Kurosawa and his band of actors becoming more comfortable in their interchangeable roles or sheer luck is unclear, but “The Gamble” ranks as the best of the series so far. Kurosawa’s direction feels less small-screen inspired and more cinematic, featuring some wonderfully inspired lateral pans and a story that’s less burdened by actual plot and moves along at a brisk clip. Yes, a lost suitcase of money and the local yakuza tracking it down are plot contrivances, but for the first time, Yuji and Kosaku are relegated to the sidelines a bit more and the comedy of the series is genuine.


Part 5 The Nouveau Rich- the weakest of the series, “The Nouveau Rich” leans much too often on physical slapstick comedy (such as the repeated motif of a yakuza boss keeping a man on a leash as his pit bull attack dog) to ever fully congeal as something other than a lark. The minimal plot- as the duo get mixed up with a girl who finds a trunk load full of heroin- also grates on the nerves as very little happens.

Part 6 The Hero- ending on a high note, "The Hero" is the best of the six films and one that staunchly looks forward to Kurosawa's heyday of the late 90's. Spinning a tale that consistently subverts good and bad and featuring a bleak, nihilistic ending that echoes Kurosawa's penchant for societal collapse and emotional decay, Yuji and Kosaku become involved with a brother and sister who want to drive a local yakuza gang member out of their neighborhood. How this final episode plays out, and the gaps in time it suddenly presents the viewer make one yearn for more.


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