Imagine what a yakuza thriller might look like if it were codirected by Jean-Luc Godard and John Woo, adding a little Sergio Leone and Jean-Pierre Melville, then multiplied by 10, and you might have TOKYO DRIFTER, a deliriously stylized work by the Japanese cult-film director Seijun Suzuki. When gang boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita) decides to go straight and...read more
Imagine what a yakuza thriller might look like if it were codirected by Jean-Luc Godard and John Woo, adding a little Sergio Leone and Jean-Pierre Melville, then multiplied by 10, and you might have TOKYO DRIFTER, a deliriously stylized work by the Japanese cult-film director Seijun
When gang boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita) decides to go straight and buy a high-rise building with a loan from underworld banker Yoshii (Michio Hino), rival gangster Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi) schemes to take control of the building. His gang beats up Kurata's right-hand man Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) and then
coerces Yoshii into signing over Kurata's deed to them. Otsuka's chief hitman "Viper" Tatsu (Tamio Kawachi) then kills Yoshii and frames Kurata for the murder. Tetsuya offers to take the rap for Kurata, but Kurata tells him to leave Tokyo instead. After eluding an attack by Tatsu, Tetsuya takes
the train to Niigata. He's arrested by the police when he arrives, but is freed by members of a local gang. Tatsu tracks down Tetsuya and they're both wounded during a gunfight. Fellow drifter Kenji "Shootin' Star" Aizawa (Hideaki Natani), a former member of the Otsuka gang, shows up and helps
remove the bullet from Tetsuya's shoulder.
When Tetsuya's nightclub-singer girlfriend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) arrives in Niigata, Tetsuya ignores her and travels to Sasebo in South Japan. He meets with Kurata's old friend Umetani (Isao Tamagawa), who runs a club called the Saloon Western, Tatsu and Aizawa are also at the club. When a
barroom brawl breaks out, Tatsu tries to shoot Tetsuya, but misses. Cornered by Aizawa, Tatsu shoots himself. In Tokyo, Otsuka offers to make peace with Kurata if he allows Tetsuya to be killed. Kurata reluctantly agrees and calls Utemani to order the hit, but Aizawa learns of the plot and helps
Tetsuya escape. Tetsuya returns to Tokyo and confronts Otsuka and Kurata at Chiharu's nightclub. Tetsuya kills Otsuka and wipes out his whole gang, and Kurata slashes his wrists. Tetsuya embraces Chiharu, but then tells her that a drifter needs no woman, and walks away.
Virtually unknown in the West until the early 1990s, Seijun Suzuki churned out 40 B movies from the mid 1950s to the late '60s for Nikkatsu studios, in which he assiduously and increasingly subverted the formulaic conventions of the yakuza and thriller genres through narrative abstraction and an
extraordinary degree of plastic stylization. His work combines Godard's intellectual aestheticism, Nicholas Ray's symbolic use of color and widescreen, the primal violence of Samuel Fuller, and the cartoonish qualities of Frank Tashlin. With Suzuki, style is not only content, it also serves to
critique and redefine the entire iconography of the crime film. In TOKYO DRIFTER, Suzuki employs outre lighting effects, intentionally artificial-looking sets, dynamic widescreen compositions, and musical interpolations to transform a routine gangster plot into a bold and experimental example of
the expressive possibilities of film. Starting with the absurdly melancholy theme song (which is reprised practically every 10 minutes, either by one of the characters whistling or singing it), and the high-contrast B&W pre-credit fight scene, (in which a "colorized" toy gun magically appears),
the film is one coup de cinema after another.
Every sequence features its own sound and color design (melodramatic love songs at the elegant yellow nightclub; rock and jazz for Otsuka's day-glo purple headquarters) and the characters are always chromatically integrated with the sets. Tetsuya continually walks through the snow in his
powder-blue suit and white loafers; virtually every shot of Otsuka begins with an extreme close-up of his sunglasses; a shootout takes place in a room whose walls inexplicably change from white to red with each shot; and another occurs on railroad tracks featuring an obvious rear-projection train,
while parts of the frame are obscured by diagonal mattes and filters on the camera lens. The final showdown, choreographed like a Fred Astaire dance number, is a rapturous display of camera movement and editing, as the white-clad Tetsuya gracefully glides across the cavernous white nightclub set,
throws his gun high into the air, runs and catches it (indicating that a young John Woo might have seen the film) and mows down Otsuka and his black-clad gang. All of Suzuki's dazzling technique would be little more than empty gimmickry if it weren't employed in such a light and playful way, such
as in the film's funniest scene, the completely irrelevant brawl in the "Saloon Western," which is a surreal parody of Hollywood westerns, replete with drunken American sailors, and Japanese bargirls screaming "Don't be a chicken, Yankee" in English. Not surprisingly, TOKYO DRIFTER's irreverence
angered Suzuki's bosses at Nikkatsu, who had ordered him "to play it straight this time," but it's fairly normal compared to his next film for the studio, the completely insane BRANDED TO KILL (1967), which finally got him fired. (Violence.)
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