Bright Lights Film Journal

The Cross and the Ukelele: Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon

Suzuki blows morning glories

“No man should love a raccoon.” Wise words indeed, even if they address a problem few will encounter, but that’s one lesson taught in Seijun Suzuki’s visually lavish and delightfully fractured fairy tale, Princess Raccoon (when in Japan, call this musical extravaganza Operetta tanuki gotten and call him Suzuki Seijun).

The Busby Berkeley of yakuza hit-man thrillers, Suzuki has spent much of his career raising the hackles of studio bosses with his impudent narrative zigzagging, subverting formulaic gangster scripts into occasions for streams of delirious geometric invention. With Princess Raccoon, this anarchic prankster and cult hero drops the violent film noir tropes of his genre work (which reached new absurdist heights in his last effort, the wildly arbitrary Pistol Opera, above), and makes the final leap into the all-singing, all-dancing musical form, after years of skirting the edge with his ostrich-plumed showgirls in Youth of the Beast and the shag rug era’s pop numbers in Tokyo Drifter.1

Like his fellow octogenarian Alain Resnais in Pas sur la bouche (Not on the Lips),2 Suzuki has chosen to deal in melodies and whimsy, but with such urbane wit and playfully extravagant décor that Princess Raccoon feels like a spanking new Minnelli musical but with the mischievous addition of demons and bodhisattvas, calypso songs and hip-hop inflected anthems, dancing raccoons and a running theme of cannibalism, all framed in strokes of vibrant color.

Making himself at home in this magical realm, Suzuki adds music to the oft-filmed tale of a tanuki – a raccoon-like creature known for its shapeshifting – who assumes the human form of a beauteous princess who loves an exiled prince. Typical of any self-respecting myth, there’s a heroic quest, a vain and destructive ruler, attendant deities to consult and a perilous journey, and even a climactic lovers’ Liebestod, but with Suzuki pulling the strings, it becomes another raucous comedy of desire in the carnival of earthly existence.

In her Japanese film debut, Zhang Ziyi, heroine of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, emanates out of a ribboning waterfall in a memorable entrance. Still speaking her native “speech of Cathay,” but no longer tasked with fending off airborne ninjas, China’s delicately steely lotus instead finds herself clacking out a credible tap-dance in her zori sandals. Her tanuki-princess may lack depth, displaying the surface beauty of a doll or mannequin, but swathed in multi-hued chiffons of soft violet and apple green and peach, she becomes Suzuki’s Cyd Charisse.

The Lord of the castle (Mikijiro Hira, veteran of Pistol Opera), who banishes his son the Prince because “All who threaten my beauty I will kill,” illustrates not only the vanity of power, but also the power of vanity as he believes his fearsomely waxen features make him “the fairest of all,” leading to the fatal hubris of declaring himself a god. Like all Suzuki’s players, he plies a Kabuki-style of acting rooted not in psychological plausibility but in performance, onstage displays of gestures and postures and signifying, though Joe Odagiri had more presence in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future than he musters as Suzuki’s bland prince.

To enjoy Princess Raccoon, viewers locked into logical, orderly plots must relax and open themselves to the flamboyant artifice, surreal logic, and reliably earthy humor, making do with the shreds of myth that support Suzuki’s virtuoso imagery. His storytelling rewards not the heart but that pleasure center of the brain that delights in composition and wild flights of fancy, so much so that critic Tony Rayns deems all his films “rhapsodies.”

Demonstrably more costly than Pistol Opera, this sophisticated production uses the style of burnished gold Japanese screens as a unifying design, further animated with modern graphic elements including engravings and mezzotints and woodblocks and squiggly golden calligraphy not seen since Greenaway’s The Pillow Book. Thus Suzuki sends his courting lovers on a magical rowboat that glides down curling ink-drawn waves. He renders an enchanted woods in stippled charcoal (“the Crackle-Snap Forest,” as the lively subtitles have it), and has the Big Dipper twinkling overhead in a dusky diorama, as a woman furiously hurls outpourings of string from her hands, like Spider Man.

Again and again Suzuki pulls the tatami mat out from under us as the settings prove ever-disorienting, freely and without warning plunging from abstract fantasy space to a kabuki theatre stage to real outdoor locations. With the spatial freedom of anime, Suzuki keeps redefining scale and perspective with trompe-l’oeil effects, dazzling tricks of perspective and light, and now a surprise freeze-frame, now a spasm of slow-motion. With one backwards swivel, the camera reveals the flat painted surface onscreen as actually being the stage floor, but as we reorient at this new 90-degree angle, the camera continues descending to reframe from a lower position, as if peeking under the skirt of the stage. Indeed, Suzuki flaunts his theatrical apparatus, allowing a curtain to partially fall after one musical number, watching the players’ feet as they sweep discarded flower petals off the stage.

In this world of tanuki totem poles and bowls of icy tears frozen by grief, where voguing peasants in kimonos sing “la-la-la-la-la” and a trio of impish moppets dance like raccoons with bushy tails, no one is surprised when paintings speak, or a candelabra has human arms (thank you, monsieur Cocteau), or that a glass bowl shows the future in its frothing yellow liquid. Too gimlet-eyed and humorous to indulge in voluptuary excess like Wong Kar-wai (2046, another Zhang Ziyi vehicle) Suzuki nevertheless pauses to evoke sensual textures as a hand trails in flowing water, or a dainty foot stops a raft loaded with white blossoms, or sensuous billows of silk brush across the floor.

Yet the witty choreography has a cartoon-like bounce (men beat their swollen bellies like drums) used more elegantly than the furious hoofing that famously concludes Takashi Kitano’s Zatoichi. Techno and tango and ska all figure in the score, and Suzuki even resurrects songstress Hibari Misora (who died in 1989) in a “virtual appearance” to reprise her hit “Like a River Run.” Memorable lyrics range from a rambunctious red-haired rock band’s “Tanuki Palace is paradise!,” to a grand aria of comic pessimism (“People are a plague, a horrible disease”), and a questioning song to the princess (“What kind of eyebrows do you like?”). Perhaps the showstopper number is a withering parody of nostalgia as Suzuki’s Catholic villainess vigorously sings, “And now the end draws near/My century of life has been hard and cruel and bleak/my century of life is now about to end,” all while silvery filaments dance and undulate around her. When she finally expires, fireworks explode into the sky with relief.

Still, for all its sprightly dancing and pungent humor, a zen-like calm and prevailing sweetness seem to radiate here, a surprise from this reliably transgressive director. Religious certainties have played no part in Suzuki’s carnivalesque appreciation of deluded humanity, but here he acknowledges all the consoling myths, from pagan beliefs (the golden Frog of Paradise) to Buddhist and Shinto rituals, to the virgin Mary-centered practices of Japan’s Roman Catholic minority, the latter embodied in a silver-haired villainess. Several sightings of the Christian crucifix in provocative contexts also tweak this group, not least in a carefully wrought but inexplicably funny image showing an ornate cross and rosary atop a lacquered ukulele, ideology supported by entertainment.

While a background painting bears the date 1582, the story may or may not be set in that year, when a Christian Japanese general marched his private army across the islands in a proselytizing invasion, and may or may not involve the velvet-clad grandees from Old Europe who sip wine and chat in Portuguese, but the Catholic finds herself lashed with a bough of cherry blossoms (re-enacting a favorite Suzuki fetish scene) before her faith proves unequal to the pagan forces, much like Michael Powell’s nuns in Black Narcissus. In the end, it’s Buddha who contrives a resurrection, but Suzuki’s visual metamorphoses swirl and mutate with a primitive animism where the universe moves restlessly in flux: not only does the princess pass back and forth between animal and human forms, but the hero himself materializes from bouncing ball to flapping bat to smiling prince.

Some may resist the film’s mixture of cultures, modes, and media, feeling like the hapless ninja sitting in a stewpot, awaiting his imminent reduction down to broth. Yet a Liebestod turn of the plot suggests that Suzuki’s operetta may aspire to the Wagnerian ideal of total art that incorporates music and theatre and design, or Powell’s attempt with the “pure spectacle” of Tales of Hoffmann. In the final moments, real and theatrical are joined in one camera movement, as we pull back from a nature setting onto the Kabuki stage and then recede back from the theatre, leaving us with an experience so rich that we don’t want to see another film for days, just to keep its savor.

Has Suzuki ever conjured up a more felicitous image than the nighttime light from fireflies fooling the morning glories into opening prematurely? One blossom falls from its stem but is puffed aloft by the lovers who take turns blowing the blue flower between them as it tumbles and dances weightlessly in midair, much as we spectators feel plucked from our places and gloriously disoriented yet buoyed by the lifegiving breath of Suzuki’s art.

  1. To read this author’s guide to another ten films by Seijun Suzuki, see “Climbing Mt. Suzuki.” []
  2. For this author’s take on Not on the Lips, see his home page. []