Nearly a decade after being fired by Nikkatsu for his “incomprehensible” style, Seijun Suzuki returned to the studio system to direct A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness, a subversive, satirical black comedy that feels at least somewhat autobiographical.
The plot (which is surprisingly coherent when judged by the arthouse auteur’s usual standards) revolves around a sports publication's efforts to transform an attractive amateur golfer into a model, spokesperson, and television star, hoping that her success on the fairway will translate to advertising revenue. Initially, this rags-to-riches narrative unfolds in a rather traditional, straightforward, conventional manner; as the protagonist’s fragile psyche gradually fractures under the pressures of her newfound fame, however, the movie’s formal structure likewise deteriorates: the editing becomes increasingly disjointed and fragmentary, while the production design abandons mundane naturalism in favor of surreal impressionism (our heroine’s palatial home is particularly striking in this regard, featuring an intentionally inconsistent color palette reminiscent of the climactic shootout in Suzuki’s own Tokyo Drifter).
The result is a delightfully delirious criticism of commercialism, consumer culture, and manufactured celebrity—a scathing indictment of how corporations reduce people to products, exploiting their popularity before callously discarding them when they are no longer profitable. From its cheeky opening credits sequence (a series of meticulously composed and exquisitely framed images of golf paraphernalia evocative of a country club brochure) to its absurdly tragic conclusion (even Shakespeare himself would find the carnage to be a tad excessive), A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness is a resounding triumph. The fact that it was distributed by Shochiku—a company that is commonly associated with “prestige cinema” (i.e., award bait)—merely enriches its deliciously irreverent tone.