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Sometimes a stunning cinematic style is all a movie has to offer but in the case of Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter (1966), it is more than enough and becomes a celebration of the medium's potential. Seen through his eyes, the gangster film genre becomes a point of departure in which anything goes, from interrupting the narrative for a wild, disorienting discotheque number to paying homage to the American western in an elaborate barroom brawl where prostitutes and yakuza rumble with U.S. sailors. The plot, which zigzags from Tokyo's neon nightlife to snow-covered country vistas (and can seem quite incomprehensible on a first viewing), follows a recently paroled ex-con Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) who tries to go straight but the odds are against him. Hounded every step of the way by former gang members, business rivals and cops, Tetsu follows his own code of honor which keeps him on the move, playing his enemies against each other while coming to the rescue of Chiharu, a victimized nightclub singer (played by real-life pop star Chieko Matsubara).
Like the protagonist of Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki was a maverick who went his own way after towing the line for years. In some ways, Tetsu's defiant, self-destructive behavior in the film mirrors Suzuki's own experiences in the Japanese film industry and is autobiographical in spirit. When he first went to work for Nikkatsu Studios in the late 50s (after leaving a lower-paid position at Shochiku Studios), it was a struggling film company specializing in genre films. But shortly after Suzuki's arrival, Nikkatsu began to realize its biggest commercial successes were in the yakuza genre and Suzuki was responsible for some of the best. In an amazingly prolific seven years, he helmed more than 25 films and finally achieved critical acclaim with the breakout success of Yaju no Seishun (1963), considered by some to be the film that actually sparked the Japanese moviegoers' craze for yakuza films. In time, Suzuki grew tired of the formula and the assembly-line production imposed on him by Nikkatsu (the average film shoot was 28 days). If he couldn't choose his own assignments, he would push the boundaries of the yakuza film, experimenting with the look and style. It proved to be too much for Nikkatsu management who issued him a warning after viewing the delirious Tokyo Drifter. Suzuki, however, ignored their orders and produced two more stunning features, Fighting Elegy (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), both among his greatest work - before being fired by the studio in 1967 for making "incomprehensive" movies. It would be more than ten years before he worked in the Japanese film industry again, making an artistic comeback with Zigeunerweisen (1980), the first in the well-regarded Tashio trilogy.
According to Suzuki in an interview on the Criterion DVD for Tokyo Drifter, he was ordered to make the film as a vehicle for Tetsuya Watari who Nikkatsu was grooming as a major star. But Watari, who would go on to become one of Japan's most popular stars, was an inexperienced actor at the time and would freeze up, unable to deliver his lines whenever the camera was rolling. Seijun had to resort to prodding him with a broom or using other tricks to break Watari's camera phobia so he could deliver his dialogue. When the director finally screened his film for his bosses, he was ordered to change the ending. In the original version, Tetsuya and Chiharu say goodbye to each other against a white wall under a green moon. Instead, Suzuki was ordered to shoot a less surreal ending and complied with one that concludes with Tetsuya wandering off and disappearing into the nighttime neon streets of Tokyo. An interesting side note: a sequel to Tokyo Drifter was produced but it was filmed by a different director at another studio as Nikkatsu refused to be further embarrassed by anything to do with Suzuki or his film.
Anyone viewing Tokyo Drifter for the first time will be struck by the dazzling visual look of the film. The plot becomes secondary to the beautifully designed set pieces which play on in your head long after the film has faded. Among the more outre highpoints are:
- The high contrast, black and white opening in which Tetsu's individualist nature is revealed by the way he withstands the pain of numerous beatings by gangster thugs without breaking.
- The eclectic editing used in the sequence where Mutsuko, a gangster's moll, is accidentally killed by a stray bullet; we view her collapse onto a white-ash colored carpet in an overhead shot followed by a horizontal widescreen view of her prone body against a glowing scarlet backdrop behind glass panels and then a close-up of blood trickling down her breast.
- The stylized pre-MTV music video look of the sequence where Tetsu wanders through the falling snow while singing the theme song to Tokyo Drifter.
- The climactic showdown in the nightclub with its stark white-on-white color schemes and iconic use of props recalls the ultra stylized look of such MGM films from the fifties as Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958) or the Mickey Spillane musical homage in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953).
Tokyo Drifter may have been unappreciated by Japanese critics and moviegoers at the time of its release but it has a fervent cult following today. Composer John Zorn, in his Criterion liner notes for Suzuki's Branded to Kill, made the following observation about the director: "His nihilistic philosophy is quite apparent in his work - "Making things is not what counts: the power that destroys them is" - as a kind of playful irreverence that echoes the French Wave that influenced Suzuki and his contemporaries."
This sentiment was also echoed in The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film (edited by Phil Hardy) which noted, "Suzuki's films recall the best, corrosively anarchic work of a Frank Tashlin or Tex Avery and their celebration of cinema as aesthetic play. In this he not only preceded, but out-classed, Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart (1982)." And finally one has to wonder if Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (Part 1 & 2) would have existed if it hadn't been for Tokyo Drifter. Just take a look at those two films and you can start checking off the homages to Suzuki from the manic gun battles to the duel in the snow. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and Tarantino deserves credit for encouraging his fan base to go back and study the masters.
Producer: Tetsuro Nakagawa
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Yasunori Kawauchi
Cinematography: Shigeyoshi Mine
Film Editing: Shinya Inoue
Art Direction: Takeo Kimura
Music: Hajime Kaburagi
Cast: Tetsuya Watari (Tetsuya Hondo), Chieko Matsubara (Chiharu), Hideaki Nitani (Kenji Aizawa), Ryuji Kita (Kurata), Tsuyoshi Yoshida (Keiichi), Hideaki Esumi (Otsuka).
by Jeff Stafford