April 1, 2002
In North America, Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki is virtually unknown to mainstream audiences. However, to fans of Japanese cinema, he is regarded as one of the masters of the gangster genre. In the 1950s, he was a journeyman director making crime thrillers and film noirs in the Hollywood tradition for Nikkatsu studios. It was during this period that Underworld Beauty (1958) was made.
Underworld Beauty opens with archetypal film noir imagery: a darkened, deserted city street at night, complete with menacing music. A mysterious figure dressed in a trenchcoat enters a dark, dank sewer. Miyamoto (Mizushima) is a thief recently released from prison after a three-year stretch. He recovers diamonds from the heist that resulted in his incarceration with the intention of selling them through a local crime boss. Miyamato hopes to pay back Mihara, his partner who was injured on the job. Detective Watanabe is still snooping around the case, hoping to find out what happened to the loot.
However, just as Miyamato and Mihara are about to unload the diamonds on a rooftop buy, thieves arrive and try to rob them. Mihara swallows the diamonds and jumps off the roof of the building. And so, the race is on for Miyamato to get the stones back before the rival thieves or the cops can get them.
Michitaro Mizushima is perfectly cast as the lone wolf criminal with his own personal code of honour. His character is straight out of a classic Hollywood gangster film—clearly an influence on Suzuki. For example, the way Miyamoto dresses is similar to James Cagney’s character in White Heat (1949). Miyamoto is the kind of protagonist that John Woo would later popularize in his Hong Kong crime films—he even resembles an older Chow Yun-Fat.
There are a few stylish flourishes in Underworld Beauty—most notably, the film’s exciting, action-packed climax—that hint at Suzuki’s later transition into his pop-art-influenced crime films of the ‘60s. Those films made him internationally famous and so confused the studio that they fired him.
Just a filmography for Seijun Suzuki.
The films of Seijun Suzuki have enjoyed a renewed interest in recent years with the Criterion Collection releasing two of his more popular films (Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter) on DVD and with high profile filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino citing him as an influence in interviews. Home Vision has done a fantastic job on the transfer—it’s crystal clear with no scratches or artifacting to be found. The lack of any extras that place Underworld Beauty into the proper cultural and historical context for those new to Suzuki’s movies is a bit disappointing, but the liner notes do examine (albeit briefly) the climate in the Japanese film industry during the ’50 and ‘60s.