ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Tokyo Drifter (1966) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
A mob hitman goes it alone
Tetsuya Watari plays “Phoenix” Tetsu, a highly skilled hitman loyal to Kurata (Ryûji Kita), an erstwhile mob boss who has decided to go straight by purchasing a building in Tokyo for legitimate business purposes. Unfortunately, a rival gang led by Otsuka (Eimei Esumi) refuses to leave them in peace. When Otsuka learns that his rival still owes 8 million Yen to the property’s previous owner, Yoshii (Michio Hino), he decides to stump up the money himself, lure Yoshii into their hideout and coerce him into selling them the deeds. After the deal is done, he shoots him in the back.
Tetsu arrives on the scene at that moment, thus chancing upon their scheme. While Otsuka and his men manage to escape, they are still left with the concern that our protagonist could confess everything to the police. Tetsu decides to hit the road with a number of would-be assassins in hot pursuit.
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Style trumps substance here
In outline, Tokyo Drifter is a fairly conventional Japanese Yakuza flick with the usual archetypal central anti-hero character who, while clearly capable of carrying out violent acts with ruthless efficiency, nevertheless possesses a certain sense of morality due to his strict adherence to a code of honour and love for a fundamentally decent woman - in this case, a nightclub singer named Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara). Stylistically, however, it is very much its own beast.
Visually, it comes about the closest that any film ever has to what a manga comic book would be like had it been turned into live action rather than animation. Indeed, according to some sources, its aesthetic had even inspired the anime version of Monkey Punch’s popular manga Lupin the Third. Retina-searing burst of colour and moody film noir-style chiaroscuro are impeccably brought together within the same shots. There are a few strange, seemingly random optical flourishes such as the use of high contrast during the black-and-white opening sequence. The sets veer from James Bond-style outlandishness to a minimalist style with bare, brightly-coloured walls. Scenes are often filmed from the most unusual angles - an overhead shot of a secretary collapsing dead on the floor from a gunshot wound being a classic example.
The editing style is equally strange. It often jumps into and out of scenes in an abrupt and disjointed manner, giving us (the viewers) the bare minimum for us to process the story and forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. It’s arguable, however, that that’s the point. The whole modus operandi of the film appears to be that of “revel in the moment and quickly move on”. Tetsu, our central protagonist, ultimately finds that he has to do the same because his early position of dogged loyalty ultimately counts for nothing in the cutthroat world of organised crime. It is telling that the only other truly trustworthy Yakuza character here is another who has turned his back on “the family”.
It’s a film rich with delightful little flourishes and setpieces. Tetsu’s car has its own wilfully iconic look, complete with a chequerboard motif on the roof. There’s a riotous comedic brawl sequence in a bar decked out to look like a Wild West saloon (spot the deliberate and affectionate homage). One of the characters has a female secretary who spends her time chuckling over a manga comic (spot the homage part II). There are a few musical numbers featuring Tetsu and Chiharu singing folk-style pop songs. A lengthy shootout at a countryside hideout culminates in one bad guy losing an eye (there are a few gory moments here) but still living to tell the tale. There’s a tense gunfight where the two participants face off on a railway track while a train ploughs inexorably towards them.
Tokyo Drifter won’t appeal to everyone - and especially not to those who greatly value substance over style. However, if you are the kind of person who enjoys the likes of Mandy or the original Suspiria then you will most likely embrace it to your bosom with a similar aesthetic passion.
Runtime: 82 mins
Dir: Seijun Suzuki
Script: Yasunori Kawauchi
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Tamio Kawaji, Ryûji Kita, Eiji Gô, Isao Tamagawa, Eimei Esumi, Michio Hino
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This brand new restoration is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears. We are simply blessed with unblemished, staggeringly beautiful images from start to finish.
We get an enclosed booklet which features the essay Catch My Drift by film critic Howard Hampton. He discusses the film’s pop art aesthetic and Seijun Suzuki’s artistic philosophy: “Costume fitting is the beginning of character development.”
On the disc itself are the following:
Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu
A 2011 interview with the director and assistant director, who discuss their memories of Tokyo Drifter’s production. They reveal that the film’s brightly coloured lighting was, in part, deliberately chosen as a method to save money on set design. Suzuki also chose it because the film tied in with a pop song which was released around the same time and he wanted to imbue a sunny visual style. Apparently, Nikkatsu Studios weren’t happy with the end results because they felt that it failed to promote Tetsuya Watari, whom they were attempting to make into a major star. As a result, they forced Suzuki to reshoot the original ending.
This interview with the director was recorded during a 1997 retrospective at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. Suzuki worked with Nikkatsu Studios for 12 years, making a staggering 42 films in that period. However, all of them were low budget affairs which were aimed at the bottom half of double bills. They were churned out incredibly quickly, with a time frame of one week for writing a script and four for filming. In the end, Suzuki’s unorthodox style resulted in him being fired from the studio following the making of Branded to Kill (another cult classic in his filmography).
Here, he discusses how he makes his film. His philosophy is one of dressing actors in extraordinary costumes and surrounding them with outlandish sets in order to affect their performances by making them feel like they are in a different world. However, despite his distinctive visual style, he doesn’t like to pre-plan or use storyboards. He prefers spontaneity and dislikes tipping off the cast and crew about what to expect.
He also briefly talks about Tokyo Drifter’s original ending which was scrapped at the studio’s insistence.
The only other extra here is a trailer.
Tokyo Drifter is a startling one-of-a-kind audio-visual feast which may confound some, especially on first viewing (which makes it ideal to be purchased and watched again and again). By the standards of The Criterion Collection, this disc is surprisingly light on extras but the ones which we do get are interesting enough.