Tokyo Drifter artwork by Mister G

Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter artwork by Mister GDirector: Seijun Suzuki / Screenplay: Yasunori Kawauchi / Editing: Shinya Inoue / DP: Shigeyoshi Mine / Music: Hajime Kaburagi

Cast: Tetsuya Watari / Chieko Matsubara / Hideaki Nitani / Tamio Kawaji / Ryuji Kita / Eimei Esumi / Tomoko Hamakawa / Michio Hino    

Year: 1966


 They Do Things Differently Here


Believe me, Dear Reader, when I say that Tokyo Drifter is one of the bravest, daftest and most wilfully bonkers films, I think I’ve ever seen. 

So how did it get made and, more importantly, why is it so well regarded today?

I began my 2018 review of Toshio Matsumoto’s underground classic Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), with an outline of Japan’s post-war studio system: a murky cartel of studios and their own tied-cinema chains. A few would-be auteurs such as Matsumoto were so frustrated by their inability to gain traction within such a system, that they chose to break free and form their own ‘studio-collective’.

But what of those film-makers unable, for whatever reason, to follow-suit? How might these directors find a balance between art & commerce? One only has to see the late-career run of films by Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017) under the aegis of the Nikkatsu studio, to see how such aspiration might be pursued… And thwarted!

GlassesAfter Suzuki’s enlisted service ended in 1945, his initial intention was to study business at Tokyo University, prior to taking-over his father’s business making bicycle bells. Two things conspired against this ambition: Suzuki failed his entrance exam and his father’s business then followed-suit, as a result of Japan’s immediate post-war economic collapse. As a result, a friend got him involved in a scriptwriting class and, in one of life’s happy accidents, a job opened for Suzuki at one of the city’s smaller studios, Shoichi. He was to stay there for a number of years, learning the movie business as an Assistant Director.

From Shoichi, he was lured across to bigger rival Nikkatsu on a bigger salary, as a ‘Contract-Director’; a post he’d hold for twelve years, churning-out forty-two films at the rate of about four-per-year. It was a punishing schedule, but Suzuki wasn’t the only Director given such a workload: to service Nikkatsu’s chain of cinemas, the studio was releasing at least two pictures a week! As Japan’s economic recovery got underway, the country’s emergent youth culture, together with a resurgence of wealth among the middle-aged, led to constant demand for new material with which to ‘keep bums-on-seats’.

A schedule such as that, would lead some – such as Matsumoto – to walk away; tired of the conveyor belt of humdrum, ‘cookie-cutter’ releases. Others, such as Suzuki, stayed-on, for security as much as anything. His first thirty pictures for Nikkatsu followed the established template, aspiring for nothing more than filling the bottom half of pulpy, genre-conforming double-bills. In other words, Suzuki had become a consummate director of ‘B-movies’.

GlassesHowever, in the early Sixties, his output shifted gear. It was as if he’d tired of the system (or felt so confident of his position that he believed he could bite the hand-that-fed). Whatever the cause, Suzuki’s work became looser & more impressionistic. Narratives started buckling; their threads, frayed. Stylistically, he began making bolder choices in his execution of the boilerplate scripts presented. Nikkatsu tolerated a run of nine pictures, made with increasing levels of ‘panache’ but, at least in its original cut, Tokyo Drifter was to prove a difficult prospect to sell to an undemanding public; not least, because the studio had intended the picture to be a showcase debut for rising star Tetsua Watari. So frustrated were executives with Suzuki’s initial cut of the film, they forced him to reshoot an oblique ending (that apparently involved characters framed beneath a ‘green moon’) and correct the most glaring of the film’s many inconsistencies. That said, what remains is still bizarre, so I fail to see how their imposed changes made that much difference…

Following this experience, Suzuki was to make just two more pictures for the studio, under increasingly difficult circumstances, that came to a head with Branded to Kill (1967). This movie turned out to be the final straw and led to Suzuki being fired. After successfully counter-suing for wrongful dismissal, Nikkatsu had him black-listed within the industry, with the result that Suzuki wouldn’t direct another picture until a decade later, in 1977…

Tokyo Drifter was the second of three films Suzuki completed in 1966. Such is its labyrinthian plot and often-nonsensical diversion, that I’ll not outline the comings-and-goings in any great detail. Going-in, all you really need to know, is that events revolve around the efforts of Tetsuya ‘Phoenix’ Hondo, to renounce his past life as a ‘heavy’ for a Tokyo-based Yakuza clan (the ‘Japanese Mafia’) and, as a result, evade numerous efforts by a rival gang, to kill him. Despite Tetsuya’s retirement (along with Kurata, his old boss), he’s seen as a threat to another gang’s expansion, so is ‘marked for death’. Where Tetsua goes – and what he gets up to, once he’s, err, drifting, form the movie’s final two-thirds, though it takes its sweet time in putting this into-motion.

GlassesResearch reveals that, by the time the project reached its customarily-short production run (a twenty-five day shoot with three whole days for mixing & editing) Suzuki’s managers were tiring of his emergent idiosyncrasies, so had imposed a budget cut on proceedings, with the intention of reigning-in his worst impulses. Yet this seems to have had the opposite effect, as both Suzuki and production designer Kimura-san, adopted the mantra of ‘poverty being the mother of invention’.

The result? Whether featuring shots of Tokyo’s neon signs or a recurring motif of stark-white sets adorned with vivid red accents, the film is a riot of over-saturated colour. Suzuki even starts with a B&W sequence in a rail shunting yard, where Tetsuya is attacked by heavies from a rival gang but refuses to retaliate. To achieve the ‘over-exposed’ look of this sequence, Suzuki actually used a batch of damaged film; simultaneously saving money AND making art in a virtuous ‘win-win’. The end of this opening sequence has Tetsuya find a child’s toy pistol; its handgrip, smashed. The gun’s not only an obvious metaphor for his own renunciation of violence, but Suzuki’s tinted the gun in candy-pink. Against the stark, monochromatic frame, it’s a dramatic look.

The striking final showdown’s also worth a mention. Suzuki mounts it in a white studio-space that’s been dressed to resemble a ‘jazz club’. However, in its sparse furnishing and ‘vagueness’, it’s less a credible set and more an abstraction of same. In the balletic gunfight that takes place in this white-space (that reminds me of George Lucas’ later work on THX 1138 (1971) Tetsuya and his would-be girlfriend, the lounge-singer Chiharu are themselves both dressed in-white to match the empty stage and an innocuous grand piano. Naturally, the bad guys wear black, leaving our heroes as ‘Avenging Angels’, battling against the ‘forces of darkness’; another sequence basted in visual metaphor.

GlassesIf the look of the film is a self-conscious exercise in style, what of its narrative?

I’ll confess here and now, that I initially struggled with ‘Drifter. Until about half-way through, my notes were trying – and failing – to record my baffled reaction to what I was seeing. Then came Tetsuya’s first shift in location, as he drifted to a snowy province in the north of Japan. There, Suzuki revelled in depicting both the locale – and its inhabitants – as little more than lingering remnants of Japan’s feudal past. Where Tetsuya wore a sharp suit and carried a pistol, the local hoodlums favoured semi-traditional dress and Samurai swords… On being confronted with this decisive schism, my reaction to the film morphed into a more measured response and aspects that’d frustrated me just minutes before, were now understood. 

These included Suzuki’s deliberate lack of continuity between shots, as well as an absence of linking or ‘explanatory’ shots. Characters would indulge in ballistic gunplay, for example, only to be seen in completely different scenes moments later! Or they might shoot – and hit – someone, with no visible effect. At one point, a character shoots himself in the head, but despite it taking place in full-frame, there’s a conspicuous absence of, well, anything. On seeing this level of action, it’s easy to realise we’re watching a stylish picture, more than one grasping for – and falling short of – authenticity. 

Tokyo Drifter then, is a picture assembled with an enthusiastic attitude by a Director tired of the treadmill he finds himself on; someone willing to explore the boundaries of both his contract and his studio’s patience before he – and they – find their respective pain barriers…

GlassesSuzuki is also paying homage to Western cinema here, in a number of key motifs. First and most obvious, is Tetsuya’s repeated whistling of a pop-tune. Sung by both Chiharu and Tetsuya alike, the song ‘Tokyo Drifter’ was a contemporaneous hit song in ‘66 and one of the key drivers behind the decision to produce a film in the first place. The character whistles to announce his presence to his enemies, often before he’s on-screen, which is a trope of classic Westerns; here, Tetsuya’s embellishing his own legend. Later, there’s even a mass-brawl in a Western-themed bar, that might’ve come from any Hollywood movie. I say ‘might’, but Suzuki shot this in one-take and without prior rehearsal, so there are a number of extras at the sidelines, either with nothing to do, or no-one to wallop over the head with a chair…

Also, by having Tetsuya as a loner who’s eschewed female company (‘A drifter doesn’t need a woman!’) Suzuki is also tapping-in to the idea of the ‘Ronin’: the Samurai warrior without a master. Beholden to no-one, they drift from town-to-village as a one-man vigilante, righting-wrongs along the way. When he sees that old boss Kurata has sold him out to upstart Otsuka, Tetsuya can see there really IS no honour among thieves, which is why he decides to remain above the fray; aloof to the end. This is Suzuki honouring local film-makers of the calibre of Kurosawa et-al, for whom such story tropes were mainstays.

This suggests another theme: that of corruption. In Japan, Yakuza ties to both the studios and their cinema chains were suspected, so it’s also possible that Suzuki was making an oblique comment on the rumours. That said, Nikkatsu’s own brand of Yakuza movies were different to that of other studios. Where the Toei Studio might portray the Yakuza as highly-principled, if honourable characters, Nikkatsu weren’t afraid of pursuing a different angle in pursuit of a younger, more irreverent audience. Generally, this involved showing the Yakuza as untrustworthy, dishonourable characters. Tokyo Drifter conforms to the studio’s tone here, at the very least.

GlassesFurthermore, I think it reasonable to suggest that Suzuki was also tipping-his-hat to Western arthouse cinema of the time, in his decision to have Tetsuya wear a powder-blue suit for much of the movie (that’s neither soiled nor rumpled) instead of the usual Yakuza ‘uniform’ of sombre-grey or black suits. Even arch-nemesis Otsuka wears a crimson blazer & shades, to distance himself from the norm. Suzuki is trying to distance himself from the norm in every aspect of the film and costume choices are one of the easiest ‘wins’ he had still-open in the face of budget cuts. Come to think of it, the ‘white-space’ used for the final sequence and the film’s other makeshift sets, are the likely result of having lost more ambitious schemes, yet he plays to the strengths of what remains.

There’s more. By making Tetsuya’s reluctant girlfriend a lounge-singer, rather than a traditional, demure wife or inscrutable Geisha-like character, Suzuki moves still further from convention. 

The other principal female character – Kurata’s secretary, Mutsuko spends her precious screen-time doing little more than giggle at a comic-book, before receiving a pay-off from her unimpressed boss. Until that moment, Suzuki is using Mutsuko to play with our expectations. Yes, she has the odd averted gaze and a lone assignation with her boyfriend from Otsuka’s gang, so we know she’s going to be trouble. What really steals it for me, is her repeated giggling at inappropriate times; she’s using it as a cover to avoid awkward questions, and Suzuki’s clever at the way he uses her. The nerves of those in the room with her, are jangled – and they’re not the only ones!   

This is Tokyo, then, in the mid-Sixties. Just two-years earlier, the city hosted its first Olympic Games. Western pop-music, epitomised by The Beatles has captivated the cinema-going youth. Pop-art is happening. Western avant-garde cinema can be seen in Tokyo’s arthouses. For a director like Suzuki, fighting a losing battle against his own creative impulses, it must’ve been seen as both liberating and intimidating, to add ever-larger dollops of subversiveness to each successive picture; pushing the studio to a point where it cried ‘Enough!’.

Tokyo Drifter turned-out to be that point…

GlassesIt has the relentless energy and momentum of a student film, yet was made by a forty-three year old, seasoned Director enjoying his ‘second-wind’ as a film-maker.

It has inspired Western film-makers in-turn, who appreciate its freneticism and bold palette. Tarantino, for example, took cues from ‘Drifter, for the opening sequence of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), having an opening sequence in B&W that bleeds-in to colour. There are bits of Kill Bill’s fight choreography that also look inspired by this film. Then there’s the whistling

If there’s one thing I will take away from Tokyo Drifter, it’s this: the film has attitude.

Suzuki is clearly having fun as a Director. He’s using its production subversively, not to make another B-movie, but to make ART, under the nose of a studio that’s yet to realise… Tokyo Drifter is a surreal fantasy. A parody of both its genre and cultural norms.

It may not be the best gangster movie ever made. Or the best movie about the Yakuza. Or even a good film, by the criteria we in the West usually judge films by…

Instead, it just might be one of its genre’s most influential and for that, I salute Seijun Suzuki’s visionary chutzpah and thank The Criterion Collection for bringing it to my attention.

Arigatōgozaimashita to both.

Money and power rule now. Honour means nothing.

Tokyo Drifter  Triple Word / Score: SURREAL / BONKERS / SUBVERSIVE / SEVEN

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