On a somewhat recent episode of the podcast “Blank Check with Griffin and David,” the hosts David Sims and Griffin Newman, along with special guest David Rees of The New Yorker are discussing director Hayao Miyazaki’s undeniable masterpiece Spirited Away. During the discussion Rees chimes in with a quote that I’ve long held in my heart as a feeling, only for him to realize as a concrete idea: “I think all interesting movies are puzzles or dreams.” While cinema is obviously capable of nuance that exists beyond such a binary, at an elemental level, I believe this to be true. Movies at their most engaging and equally enraging exist in a space for your brain to pull them apart and reassemble the pieces or for them to put you in a completely liminal trance. For the best, most basic illustration of this dichotomy think of Christopher Nolan’s movies as puzzles and think of David Lynch movies as dreams.
But the dreamlike nature of cinema has been beating in my brain for years (ironically and somewhat embarrassingly, ever since I saw Nolan’s Inception) and I frequently seek out films that exist in some level of abstraction, especially those disguised as something palatable like genre confection, or, in the case of madman and provocateur Seijun Suzuki and his 1966 tour de force Tokyo Drifter, paint-by-numbers pulp.
The film itself was almost made out of obstinance. Suzuki had been warned by his bosses at Nikkatsu Studios to tone down his more surreal and subversive tendencies after films like his Youth of the Beast (1963) had started making waves for taking the Yakuza genre and making it appeal to the counterculture and youth of Japan in the ’60s. Because of the obstinance we get a film that’s so bonkers for the time and context of its release: heavily saturated black and white transitioning to vibrant mono colors that decorate empty and surreal looking sets; a catchy song sung by multiple characters diegetically and non-diegetically, giving the film the feel of an existential musical of sorts; editing and blocking that makes Tokyo feel squished and compact with rapidly changing day/night cycles; and a finale that truly disorients you even if you’ve been able to follow the somewhat confusing plot. It’s a pop fever dream I think most people should experience, not only to see the possibilities of filmmaking but how films can truly resemble the sheet-soaking dreams you may have after an anxiety-filled week capped off with a little too much pizza and beer right before bed.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.