Written by Greg Barbrick
Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) is a delirious Pop Art explosion. Working under the yoke of the Japanese Nikkatsu Studio, Suzuki defied convention at every turn. His job was to deliver low-grade, bottom of the bill fare on the cheap, and he was under no illusions as to his status with the company. But Suzuki was too restless and creative an artist to simply grind out crap. So he did the job – he filmed the script he was given, and still found a way to elevate a D-level flick into an unforgettably violent vision of Swinging Tokyo.
His recognition as an auteur would come many years later however. At the time, Suzuki had a job to do. As he explains in one of the supplements to this Criterion Collection DVD, Tokyo Drifter was “a pop song movie.” One can only imagine the smirk on Suzuki’s face at the screening, when one of the executives said “Your movies make no sense.” Forty-five years after release, the film Suzuki made remains a marvel. The influences and homages he incorporated, as well as the techniques he developed, are clearly the work of a master. Modern-day mavericks such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch are among the many who have publicly acknowledged their debts to him.
The lyrics to the song “Tokyo Drifter” basically dictated the plot. The character of the lone drifter is a tried and true story device, which can be traced back at least as far as Homer, if not further. Tokyo Drifter focuses on the exploits of a young Yakuza assassin named Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari). The casting of Watari was the studio’s decision, not Suzuki’s, although it wound up working in his favor in the end. Watari’s total lack of acting ability renders him a cipher, which turned out to be perfect for the film.
Suzuki’s gleeful subversion of convention is apparent right from the start. For a film that has become famous for using some of the most outrageous color schemes ever, he perversely shot the opening scene in black and white. The short sequence concludes with the discovery of a bright red gun. And then, like a bullet-train headed out of the station, we are off.
Tetsu is a member of the Kurata Yakuza crime family, and we catch up with them as Mr. Kurata (Ryuji Kita) is attempting to go straight, and legitimize the organization. Many years later, in The Godfather Part III (1990) Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) would deliver the immortal line, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” Whether it is the Yakuza or the Mafia, retirement is not an option. And so it goes for the Kurata syndicate.
Among Kurata’s holdings is a building said to be worth 200 million. He has a note out on it for eight million, which he is prepared to pay off, but the rival Otsuka group have other ideas. They abduct the banker and “offer” him the eight million, in exchange for ownership of the building. The war is on, and the violence begins in earnest, especially against Tetsu – who is nicknamed “The Phoenix” for his ability to get out of almost any situation.
The action is interrupted by numerous musical breaks. They are completely out of place, yet their inclusion adds a level of absurdity to the movie which somehow works. Everything is so off-kilter anyway, why not have Tetsu sing the song to himself while riding on a train?
The storyline is pretty thin. Besides the ongoing hunt for Tetsu, only some unexpectedly treacherous double-crosses are of note. But what one comes away with are the bravura scenes Suzuki stages for the many gunfights, as well as some brilliantly surreal non-sequitur moments. One of these has to do with state of the art Japanese hair dryers. Both Tetsu’s pop singer girlfriend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) and Tetsu himself find themselves in situations where all action is suspended for them to admire the “Charm Lady” and “Light Punch” models. They are totally random product placement spots, and make no sense at all. In other words, perfectly appropriate for Suzuki’s wild ride.
As expected, Chiharu gets plenty of opportunities to sing “Tokyo Drifter.” But when Tetsu’s rivals ask her to sing for them, she refuses. The lounge they confront her in is painted in the most outlandish shades I have ever seen. It almost hurts the eyes to watch. A merciless henchman holds a pistol to her pianist’s head, which persuades her to serenade us yet again.
The entire sequence leading up to a showdown on the tracks, complete with a freight train barreling down, is one of the film’s most compelling scenes. But the most spectacular one of all occurs in a place called the Western Saloon.
Suzuki loved Westerns, and found a great way to pay tribute to the genre here. Befitting its name, the Western Saloon is an old-West theme bar, featuring swinging doors and 19th century decor. In this extended sequence, a huge comic brawl breaks out, complete with flying chairs, tables, and bodies. In the end, the place is thoroughly demolished. And just like big John Wayne did so many times before, our hero calmly walks away from the wreckage unscathed.
The following year, Suzuki would direct Branded To Kill. That film so incensed the Japanese film industry that they blacklisted him for the next ten years. The Nikkatsu Studios themselves did not fare too well during this time either. They eventually turned to softcore porn to keep the doors open. The subsequent neglect of Suzuki’s films resulted in some serious degradation, which was sadly apparent in the original VHS release of Tokyo Drifter. As part of the Criterion Collection, the film has received a high definition digital restoration, and the picture quality of the DVD is magnificent.
Besides the original theatrical trailer, the extras include two interview features. The first is with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu, which was conducted in July 2011. This 11-minute piece is primarily focused on the production of the film. The second interview is with Suzuki alone, and took place in 1997, during a retrospective of his work at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.
By that time, the director had finally been recognized for his ground-breaking work over the years. Suzuki is in an expansive mood during the 20-minute talk and discusses highlights of his long career, as well as his many battles with the studios. The segment concludes with a brief filmography.
The Criterion Collection edition ofTokyo Drifter is in Japanese, with English subtitles.