Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s film is one that I actually watched before I started doing Criterion Cuts, and liked so much that I ordered it on Blu-ray the minute Criterion announced it was getting a release in the format. It just came out, and I have it, and rewatching it felt compelled to talk about it. Sadly, I can’t capture the (frankly) amazing images from Blu-ray disks yet, so excuse the usual internet-sourced images. Just know that the Blu-ray is totally worth it.
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Seijun Suzuki’s cult yakuza film sounds straightforward on paper. Almost distressingly so. Tetsu the Phoenix (Tetsuya Watari) is a reformed yakuza hitman who still holds unwavering loyalty to his boss, now struggling with debt as he tries to go legit. A rival gang boss named Otsuka strong arms Tetsu’s boss Kurata back into the life, leading him to banish Tetsu to wander Japan. Otsuka, murderously angry at Tetsu after our hero slighted his offer to become his hit man, sends wave after wave of goons and assassins after Tetsu. There’s also a girl, because of course there is, but that’s basically it.
But really that’s selling the movie short. What we have here is the epitome of a director run amok, taking what would otherwise be a serviceable but unremarkable story to dizzying heights of visual inventiveness through sheer dickishness. I should explain.
Director Seijun Suzuki signed onto a contract with the Nikkatsu Company after it reopened post World War II as a contract director. He’d basically be given scripts by the studio and be expected to churn out fast, cheap genre movies to serve as the B-slot in double features popular in cinemas at the time. He did this pretty successfully for nearly a decade, starting to make a name for himself as a director more known for style and an emphasis on humor and excitement than things like story.
As people latched onto that unique thread to a genre (yakuza films) otherwise laden with ponderous self-seriousness, the director kept pushing himself, to the point where the studio was starting to push back that his movies were going too far. By the time we rolled into the preproduction of Tokyo Drifter, the studio handed him a pretty average script, slashed his budget so deep they assumed he couldn’t indulge in his usual eccentricities, and turned him loose.
What he returned with? Well, take a look.
To try to capture what makes Tokyo Drifter so amazing in words is beyond me, so drenched as it is in 60s pop aesthetic and how freely conventions of editing are thrown out the window in favor of achieving a tone over a tale. It would be roughly equivalent of trying to describe the 60s Batman (which, in many ways, this shares a lot of visual flair with) to someone who had only seen the Christopher Nolan films. Eventually you throw up your hands and say “You just have to see it, but trust me, it’s bananas.”
First off, we have color usage. The film opens in an overblown black and white, skin tones fading into shadow and white suits nearly glowing on the screen. Which quickly rebounds into color that might as well belong in a 50s Technicolor musical. It sails right past vibrant and right into candy-coated wonderland, only to pull it back to monochrome or very muted whites and greys seemingly at whim. It’s daring, and for those of us numbed by the post-processing movies get these days and the limited color pallets the technique often subjects us to, it’s like a breath of fresh air. From Tetsu’s ridiculous robin’s egg blue suit to a solid purple nightclub back room to wild rainbow walls for no good reason, it is inventive with lighting and set design in a way few movies are.
There’s also the editing, which compresses scenes to the point of absurdism, happy to throw continuity and flow out the window to tell the story beats with a confident economy that paints in sketches where it can get away with it. Two pertinent examples spring to mind. Early on in the movie, Tetsu’s girlfriend Chiharu is being taken away by some goons. They get into the car, only to discover that the driver is Tetsu, already having gotten the drop on them. As the car veers wildly off the road, we jump cut to Tetsu and Chiharu, hours later, laughing as they come home from what was obviously a grand date celebrating her swift rescue.
Later on in the film, one of Tetsu’s friends is backed into a corner where he’s been ordered to shoot Tetsu. Torn between duty and friendship, he hesitates, lifting his gun and pointing at an unwitting Tetsu. There’s just a long beat when the gun is held up, and then we cut to this man and Tetsu’s former rival walking dejectedly down the street together. You don’t need to see he didn’t pull the trigger, because in every movie ever made of this type, that guy never pulls the trigger. So why shoot it? Why show it? The disconnect is enough to jar you into connecting the dots yourself, and even if it doesn’t show Tetsu alive and well until the next scene you are perfectly satisfied that he is. That kind of confidence in riding the genre to a point where they can essentially drop shots is remarkable, showing both a reasonable faith in the audience to understand film making and genre storytelling and a confidence to riff beyond what’s considered ‘appropriate’ for movies. It’s bio-digital jazz, man!
As we continue to list remarkable things, I have to make a special note to the main theme, the eponymous enka ballad “Tokyo Drifter” that’s performed originally in the film by Chiharu at the nightclub where she works. The song recurs throughout the film, mostly whistled or sung by Tetsu as he roams the countryside of Japan in montage or cuts through the waves of goons put before him. There is a certain absurdity to a hero who is sneaking up on enemies and engaging in gunfights while singing his own theme song, but it’s an absurdity the film embraces. Who cares if it’s silly, or if he wouldn’t actually do that? It’s both cool and fun, and shouldn’t those take precedence over what’s ‘realistic’?
Speaking of throwing realism out the window, I need to talk to you guys about the final shootout. I know, I know, spoilers right? But I would be doing this whole movie a disservice if I didn’t talk about what is maybe the greatest not-early-John-Woo-not-spaghetti-western-not-Heat shootout in all of cinema (yeah, that’s a lot of qualifiers, but so what?) Tetsu, finally pushed back into returning to Tokyo to end his problems once and for all, ends up at the nightclub where Chiharu works, now infested with Otsuka and his men. Tetsu, giving up his blue suit for one of solid white, enters the nightclub space, which is basically more a suggestion of real space than anything resembling truth.
There, in the giant black null-space that represents a room, with a sculpture or pillars or a piano like islands in a sea of nothing, the final action scene takes place. People hide behind columns too thin to provide any sort of cover, or emerge from staircases that don’t seem to lead to anywhere. And as Tetsu leaps around the room killing people, each person brings the room up brighter and brighter, until finally when it’s just Tetsu standing tall, the black room has become a white room matching the hero so well he might as well be a prop.
Not only does this create a strange, theatrical production air to the whole final scene, but it works thematically as well. When Tetsu appears he is the center of attention in the room, all action and contrast, until slowly his action ceases and he’s simply turned normal again, a man at home in his surroundings. That his surroundings are a pile of bodies makes for a nice bit of cultural color symbolism, if that’s your thing, but what I find most interesting is how nicely after all the wild color juxtaposition we’re subjected to through the run time of the movie this final scene dovetails into the black and white intro. It is the perfect formal bookend to a movie that seems, on the surface, to reject such formal techniques outright.
So much of the joy of Tokyo Drifter is wrapped up in the experience of watching it that I found myself at a loss approaching this article on what I was going to talk about. It seems I gave it a pretty loquacious try, anyway, and hopefully I’ve captured some of what makes it a very special film for me. I love movies that embrace being a visual medium to do something new and interesting, and Tokyo Drifter offers such delights around every turn. Even now, nearly a half century after its release, it feels electric and daring. How little we’ve come in terms of pushing envelopes in such time. But I appreciate the idea that a movie could be as surprising (and admittedly to some probably offputting) now as it was upon its release.
Certainly the studios didn’t like what they got from the combative Suzuki. Next week we’ll look at his next film (and his last at the studio) Branded to Kill, when they cut his budget down so much he couldn’t even use color stock anymore, and created a movie I’ve heard called an avant garde masterpiece. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m incredibly excited, and hopefully you are too! Until then, check out Tokyo Drifter. It is a unique snowflake in a genre rife with sameness, and a delight for those inclined to this kind of gleeful, irreverent film making.