Underworld Beauty (Seijun Suzuki / Japan, 1958):
(Ankokugai no Bijo)

Seijun Suzuki’s surrealism is still formative here, but, as the trajectory of the loot is traced from behind a brick wall to a gangster’s abdomen to a mannequin’s plaster bosom, already of comical ease. The tough-guy nostalgia of Rififi and Grisbi sets the mood, then a jibe at Ikiru is introduced along with the lone-wolf brooder (Michitaro Mizushima), who shushes a jitterbug joint by requesting an old-school melody at the jukebox. He’s just out prison and trying to unload a batch of stolen diamonds, mainly as a way to pay back the pal (Hideaki Nitani) who took a bullet for him and now hobbles on his one good leg. The deal is botched, Nitani swallows the baubles and jumps off a rooftop, the police shrug it off as an accident but the yakuza boss (Toru Abe) is ready to do some slicing to recover the gems. Suzuki's technique is positively classical next to his later disjunctions, yet the film unmistakably shows an agitator’s rejection of aestheticism -- the most despicable member of this grimy gallery is the sculptor (Shinsuke Ashida) whose atelier, filled with poles peskily positioned between the camera and the nude models, cloaks greed in artistry. And, despite the noir macho strains, it’s the wild, underworld beauty of Mari Shiraki, the dead man’s livewire sister, that gives the film a center and, maybe, a new, tough moral barometer. At first, Shiraki mourns her brother’s death by the river but wipes away the tears as soon as an American soldier comes around looking for action. At the climax, she survives torture by Turkish bath and witnesses a casual rubout: When Abe heralds "the yakuza way," she leaps onto his desk and smacks him upside the head ("What ‘yakuza way’? It’s wrong to kill, you idiot!"). In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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