Seijun Suzuki's reputation is for weirdness, like the rice-sniffing killer of "Branded to Kill," mixed into violent Yakuza thrillers. His directorial style was shaped over a long career, and his influence on modern film directors such as Quentin Tarentino is vast. "Underworld Beauty" ("Ankokugai no Bijo") is a much-earlier film, his seventh to be precise, and, while a more straight-forward film than his surreal style to come, still shines with a spark of something different.
The plot is pure noir goodness, a complicated stewpot of intrigues. Two gangsters comit a daring diamond robbery. One, Mihara, is permanently maimed, one, Miyamoto, goes to jail. Fresh from jail, the Miyamoto wants to donate his share of the diamonds to Mihara, so he can retire peacefully. Their former gang boss, Oyane, thinks that is a pretty bad idea and wants the diamonds for himself. Mihara swallows the diamonds before being killed, and goes to the morgue with a belly full of treasure. Enter his sister Akiko, the titular underworld beauty. Her corrupt artist boyfriend cuts the diamonds from her brother's body, and then attempts a sale to Oyane. Miyamoto intervenes to protect both Akiko and restore the diamonds to her.
The diamonds, of course, are a classic McGuffin, leading the dangerous characters into conflict. Miyamoto is a hard-boiled anti-hero, tough as nails and a cool head in any situation. Akiko is gorgeous, both wild and innocent she is one minute frustrating and the next endearing. The actors for these lead characters are excellent, giving solid performances. Suzuki sets the climax in a sculptor's studio, allowing for body parts and mannequins to obfuscate the action as bullets go flying. (Bullets spat from the single most unrealistic machine gun I have ever seen!)
Suzuki is one of the true masters of Japanese film, and it is great to see his able hand doing something as unusually straight-forward. While not a great film, not up to the standards of "The Maltese Falcon" or "Touch of Evil," "Underworld Beauty" is still a fun flick for noir fans and Japanese film fans alike.