Review: Capone Cries A Lot (1985)

Seijun Suzuki’s tale of a singing immigrant is a poignant love letter to cinema

By Zeke Trautenberg

Seijun Suzuki is best known for the dozens of films he made while employed at Japan’s Nikkatsu studios in the 1950s and 1960s. Noir thrillers like Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967) depict a violent and rapidly changing post-war Japan. Many of Suzuki’s Nikkatsu films feature Joe Shishido, an actor whose plastic surgery-enhanced chipmunk cheeks and gangster cool complemented Suzuki’s anarchic plots, eccentric production design, and frenetic cinematography. Suzuki’s satirical 1985 film, Capone Cries A Lot stars Kenichi Hagiwara, a former boy band idol, who matches Shishido’s intensity and complements it with a knack for screwball physical comedy. Hagiwara plays Umiemon, a naniwa-bushi (rōkyoku) singer, who immigrates to 1920s San Francisco with Kozome (Yūko Tanaka), the young wife of another naniwa-bushi master. The film portrays their trials and travails as they adjust to the unfamiliar and frequently unwelcoming society across the Pacific.

The film opens in a traditional Japanese home, where Umiemon has traveled to study under the direction of Kozome’s husband. The master singer, however is not present, and the upstart singer is seduced by the mischievous Kozome, who bears an ominous tattoo of a green octopus on her back as punishment for a past infidelity. These initial sequences are replete with Suzuki’s perennial jump cuts and masterly choreographed slapstick set pieces that culminate in the severing of a finger by the desperate Umiemon. The baritone-voiced protagonist is finally taken under the wing of another naniwa-bushi master, who initially passes himself off as Kozome’s husband. In one memorable scene, the two sing insults at one other as they stand on a cliff perched over the blue-gray ocean, their fists gripping the others’ balls.  

Umiemon’s decision to take leave of his master and immigrate to Prohibition-era America is not entirely accounted for—plot holes are another endearing element of Suzuki’s films—, but his move was a common one for tens of thousands of Japanese men and women following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Many Issei settled in the West Coast and Mountain West of the United States, where they labored in mines and on railroads. This migration, which continued largely unabated until a series of restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s, reshaped the social and cultural dynamics of towns and cities across the American West.

In the film, early-twentieth-century San Francisco is depicted as a diverse city of black, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese-Americans. Umiemon settles in the Yokohama House, a hotel that doubles as a saloon and brothel. The bright interior of the hotel, with its yellow, orange, and turquoise walls, recalls the saloon in Suzuki’s gangster revenge film Tokyo Drifter. And as in Tokyo Drifter, the hotel is the site of an elaborately staged shootout. The production design in the rest Capone Cries A Lot is similarly idiosyncratic. Much of the film was shot an abandoned theme park in San Francisco; a brightly lit merry-go-round is a recurring set piece. The carnival-like setting amplifies the film’s representation of America as a place where modernity (embodied by the garish billboards for Ford Model-B, Dentyne gum, and Hershey’s Choclate), wanton violence, and racism exist side by side.

After Kozome’s gambling debts force her into prostitution, Umiemon moves into an open-air, latticed steel tower with dozens of other Japanese immigrants. He plies his trade in a plaza, but his songs, which one Yakuza member compares to the croak of suffocating frog, do not appeal to an American audience. Umiemon’s dream is to sing before the president—a fantasy unlikely to be realized unless you take into account the President of the Night, Al Capone.

The third act of the film finds the naïve singer joining the local Yakuza. The Japanese gangsters recruit him not because of his voice, but by virtue of his knowledge of Sake brewing. Freed from her indentured servitude at the brothel, Kozome also asserts herself as a dominant force in a place that she ironically calls “the land of gender equality. The lady with the octopus tattoo negotiates with Al Capone, establishes a floating brothel, and endeavors to transform herself into a modern American woman.

A tone of melancholy and sharp sense of injustice lie beneath the film’s slapstick humor and stylistic flourishes. Umiemon captures the pain of racism and discrimination in a song about American Indian resistance in the nineteenth century. Umiemon, his throat muscles tensed and his face vibrating sings: “So much hatred and malice . . . . Sandcreek.” These lyrics refer to the 1864 Sandcreek Massacre, an event in which U.S. Army volunteers murdered hundreds of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. In linking the histories of American Indians and Japanese-Americans, Suzuki establishes a link of solidarity between ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. This racial animosity and tension are also reflected in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, who hold signs reading “America for Americans,” a minstrel band in blackface, and the internment camps of the 1940s, which appear towards the end of the film. In the era of Black Lives Matter, mass deportations, and entrenched social inequality in the United States, Suzuki’s sharp-edged story of the Japanese immigrant experience in twentieth-century America resonates with poignancy and urgency.

In addition to its incisive portrayal of social and political issues of twentieth-century America, Suzuki’s film is a love letter to cinema. Capone Cries A Lot is a gangster film, a samurai picture, and a western. Umiemon’s naniwa-bushi songs, which range from tales of samurai exploits to songs about Al Capone’s teary disposition, exemplify the manic blend of genres. Likewise, the protagonist’s fervent impersonation of Charlie Chaplin in front of a movie theater underscores the film’s debt to silent era comedies. Notwithstanding the prominence of these cinematographic references, the triumphant moment of the film comes in the form of music. In a hollowed-out concrete building, a group of black jazz and blues musicians jam to the rhythm of a naniwa-bushi tune, injecting Umiemon’s mournful baritone vibrato with a whole lot of soul.

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Running Time: 130 minutes

Country: Japan

Photos: Capone Cries A Lot, K Enterprises/C.C.J.