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The Taisho Trilogy Is a Trio of Bizarre Ghost Stories About Cucking

Seijun Suzuki came back from his decade of cinematic exile with three surreal ghost stories that were linked by style and horniness

With more and more movie streaming services popping up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.

Today I’m looking at Seijun Suzuki’s psychosexually supernatural Taishō Roman Trilogy, composed of the films Zigeunerweisen, Kagerō-za, and Yumeji, all available to stream on Arrow.

As I previously mentioned in my piece on Branded to Kill, Seijun Suzuki is a filmmaker who defines his work as “making no sense and making no money.” He was the stuff of legends when he was shooting genre movies at Japanese studio Nikkatsu, making yakuza pictures and thrillers with a borderless style, surrealist zeal and vivid, technicolor flair. But after he was wrongfully terminated by the studio in 1968 over Branded to Kill and he subsequently (and successfully) sued the company for it, Suzuki was blacklisted from the industry and unable to make another feature film for more than a decade. 

During that time, he conceived of a psychosexual period drama set in Japan’s Taisho period, a brief, yet markedly liberal era from 1912 to 1926 that was represented by relative democracy, a thriving arts scene and a new influx of Western culture. Eventually, Suzuki would meet a producer who believed in his vision enough to fully fund his idea without limitations. For the first time, the filmmaker who’d made his bones turning drab studio assignments into nonsensical brilliance had free reign to make whatever he wanted, and Zigeunerweisen was the result. He would make two more films with the same period setting, themes and tendency for the avant-garde.

Zigeunerweisen (1980) follows two former colleagues — one a language professor; the other a roving madman and possible murderer — as they engage in risky games with each other while simultaneously falling into dangerous love triangles with each other’s spouses (and others). They also agree that whoever dies first will get to keep the other’s skeleton. In 1981’s Kagerō-za, a playwright is uncontrollably drawn to two mysterious women who may be the dead wives of his financier. Soon, he becomes disillusioned with the world around him as he’s pushed toward committing a lovers’ suicide with her. Suzuki finally ended the trilogy in 1991 with Yumeji, a fictional account of the life of real-life poet and painter Takehisa Yumeji as he womanizes, finds himself entranced by a widow and is fated to duel a man from his dreams who happens to be the (possible ghost) husband of said widow. 

While not narratively linked, the trio of films are definitely in conversation with each other. Each features female doppelgangers, horny ghosts and brutal murders as story elements, as well as an obsession with cuckolding. They also generally share the same hallucinatory allure and romantic despair, just in different settings. Zigeunerweisen is set at vast seasides, dark caverns and dinner tables; Kagero-za’s mysteries lie in ornate mansions and the stage; and Yumeji’s decadence and despair takes place alongside cliffside lakes and fabulous parties.

To try and make literal sense of any of these films is folly. The stories aren’t only nonlinear, but the passage of time is made to feel both endless and unmoving. It’s best not to take everything on screen as events that are happening, but as an abstract representation of the nostalgia and lust at the trilogy’s heart. A running theme through each is the irresistible nature of a woman’s allure contrasted with the nature of women supposedly being impossible to men. And frankly, “incomprehensible beauty” is exactly how I’d describe this period of Suzuki’s work.

To see a list of each of the previous entries, check out the A Very Chingy Halloween list on Letterboxd.