Director: Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Tamio Kawaji and Tuyoshi Yoshida
Seijun Suzuki directed around 40 films in a little over a decade from 1956 to 1967, for one company, Nikkatsu. Most of these were B movies from the Yakuza genre, Japanese mobster/crime films. What made Suzuki’s films from that era unique, especially the later ones, is that he put his own style into the films. To the point that the studio tried to tone that down and after Branded with Love was released in 1967 he would be fired and blacklisted from the business, before returning as an independent film maker in the late 1970s. Outside of Japan, he started to receive recognition in the 80s and 90s and was an inspiration for directors such as Quinten Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch.
Suzuki’s style was seen as psychedelic and out there for the studio that hired him. While he didn’t intend it himself, he took pride in people claiming that his films were surreal. In reality he just wanted the film to look nice and be a little different. Most of his films, including Tokyo Drifter, were made in a very short time span with a very strict budget. Films were given 28 days to be completed in, 25 days for shooting and 3 for post-production.
It was the low budget that the striking images from his films came from. The final shoot out in Tokyo Drifter takes place in an almost completely white bar. Everything is minimalist and stylised to make it pop on screen. Even the clothes of the actors blend in and create a distinct visual flair to everything. Every scene in Tokyo Drifter has a distinct and intense colour scheme to it and this was after the studio had decreased his budget to stop this. His next two films were shot in black and white with an even more limited budget.
Tokyo Drifter feels like a strange film when you watch it. It’s a Yakuza film, with the usual violence and death, but there is a light heartedness to it. The drifter is Tetsu the Phoenix (Watari), a former yakuza whose family is disbanded when their patriarch tries to run a legitimate business. It doesn’t go exactly to plan and with rival clans after Tetsu, he ends up on the run moving from Tokyo to Kyushu, an island in southern Japan.
While a lot of Yakuza films from that period romanticised the Yakuza as an almost successor to the samurai, with their focus on loyalty and honour, Tokyo Drifter departs from that showing that most of the Yakuza don’t have loyalty to their long-time friends. Tetsu is betrayed at every turn by almost everyone he thinks he can trust. Emphasising the departure from the old style, known as ‘ninkyo eiga’ (chivalry films), Tokyo Drifter starts in black and white with a scene where Tetsu is punished for the loyalty to his clan’s leader. He is brutally beaten by a rival clan trying to bring him to his breaking point and fight back. There are Yakuza watching, hoping for this to happen and they imagine the breaking point with flashes of colour.
Afterwards Tetsu is left wounded without breaking, he gets up and finds a broken toy gun, a striking red compared to the black and white opening. We are then shown Tokyo streets in full glory, with short, almost frantic snippets of neon signs and buildings. Followed by a sequence with a modern western-inspired bar with the dancing youth, shot from underneath as Suzuki wanted the scenes to be interesting to watch and not a bland dance sequence. The story goes from traditionalist in black and white, to striking and different in full colour.
The film is also filled with absurdist humour. Tetsu has his own theme song, which he sings repeatedly throughout. The film was designed to make this song a hit by the studio, and Suzuki uses this to bring out a quirky and unique feel. There’s also one point where Tetsu is escaping a group that have chased him through a snowy wooded area and he trips over an outstretched leg. We can see the leg sticking out as the audience, but Tetsu somehow doesn’t, even though the man is standing behind the tree in clear sight of Tetsu but hidden from us. And the absurdist humour goes even further with one of the final sequences, the saloon fight, that’s almost a parody of the western films from Hollywood that Suzuki loved. The whole scene is a blast and downright funny.
The biggest downfall of Tokyo Drifter is how short it is. It’s barely 80 minutes, due to the strict and constrained budget and b movie nature. The story could do with some more time to breath to really grip you. It’s fun while it lasts, but it does still feel like a b movie in places and isn’t spectacular. Despite this it is still a classic of Japanese cinema. It races along, never missing a beat with humour, violence, and music. While this film could blend into the sea of movies from this period, it uses its limitations to bring something colourful and vivid to life.