Having gained enormous notoriety during the 60s and an almost equal amount of cult fame subsequently (partially because his praises were sung by cooler-than-thou 90s filmmakers like Jarmusch and Tarantino), Seijun Suzuki’s reputation as an anarchic and rule-bending filmmaker of jazzy, visually lurid yakuza flicks is nevertheless well-earned, especially for the fluid, free-form Branded to Kill that flawlessly walks the thin line between ridiculousness and genius and the more conventional (strictly in comparison) Tokyo Drifter that is actually more representative of his aesthetic during that era, with visual pyrotechnics punctuating disjointed and irreverent send-ups of generic B-movie scripts.
Tattooed Life, made a few years before Suzuki would assault the senses with his wildly genre-defying masterpieces (and get fired for his troubles), only briefly hints at what was to come next. A fairly straight-forward film, it is a tale of two brothers, Tetsu, a yakuza hitman in the lower rungs of a gang and Kenji, a fledgling artist. Tetsu is set up to be killed after performing a hit for his boss, and is saved only at the last moment by his brother, who then suffers pangs of guilt for having killed a man. The rest of the story follows the two brothers on the lam from the law, and the gangs.
The main stop on this journey is a construction site run by a boss with a bitter rivalry with yakuza gang over a construction contract and despite a rough beginning and uncertainty about their past, the two brothers build a solid rapport with the workers and even the boss. There are brief flutters, some temporary, some lesser so. The artist brother develops quite a fancy for the boss’ wife, while the more stoic elder brother is only barely able to resist the advances of the wife’s younger sister. As can be guessed, this isn’t a story with much intellectual pretensions, yet it is this very characteristic that makes it endearing, if a little dated. And even though Suzuki’s yakuza films are typically characterized by a chic urban nihilism and wildly illogical portrayals of remorseless killers, Tattooed Life is surprisingly different in this regard, the relationship between the two disparate brothers in particular captured with surprising warmth and moving tenderness.
The passage of calm at the construction site is predictably brief and the past eventually catches up with the duo. A few rats planted inside the construction house, Kenji’s insatiable feelings for the boss’ wife and Tetsu’s past as a wanted criminal all complicate matters as past, present and future converge in a thoroughly irresistible climax. What has been till this point a solidly competent, if mildly unexceptional yakuza fare suddenly transforms into a stylistic tour-de-force of such delirious panache that it finally earns the movie the right to be labeled a precursor to Suzuki’s later genre-bending romps. In a sword-fighting finale that wouldn’t at all seem out of place at the end of a samurai period piece, we see Tetsu enter the mesmerizing maze-like interiors of a house, where the boss and his wife are held captive by the yakuza boss, fight off a few dozen yakuza punks, before facing off with the gang leader himself in a jaw-dropping denouement. Tattooed Life isn’t a masterpiece, yet deserves to be watched for the genius of a defiantly mischievous master-craftsman that transforms the dregs of it’s B-movie inanities into a glorious style and attitude that many have imitated, but few have bettered.