Published on June 23rd, 2022 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
The Criterion Cut – Tokyo Drifter
In this installment of The Criterion Cut, Douglas looks at Seijun Suzuki’s colourfyl and unconventional yakuza film, Tokyo Drifter, a delicious slice of pop art.
EDITOR’S NOTE: There are some spoilers ahead.
Seijun Suzuki is an interesting director and, I would argue, Tokyo Drifter is his best film. The 1966 yakuza thriller Tokyo Drifter is notable for its unconventional narrative techniques, convoluted plot, non-linearity, and brightly coloured pop art aesthetics. In fact, Tokyo Drifter would prove to be Suzuki’s penultimate movie with Nikkatsu studios, who fired and then blackballed him after Branded to Kill (1967), which was considered to be an even more incomprehensible and avant-garde movie (I consider Tokyo Drifter to be a better film). Tokyo Drifter was intended to be a conventional yakuza movie as Nikkatsu presented Suzuki with a script that followed the genre conventions fairly closely. Instead Suzuki used the opportunity to render a rather formulaic script into one of his career-defining efforts which would subvert the genre and act as a criticism of theyakuza archetype.
Tokyo Drifter represents a dramatic leap forward in artistry for Suzuki and a divergence from the usual yakuzafare and a dramatic leap forward in surrealism and heavily stylized filmmaking. In Tokyo Drifter it was through its pop art sensibilities, its extreme close-ups, jumps cuts, unusual editing, and bold colour palette that the iconoclastic nature of Suzuki’s work is evident. Suzuki was not overly concerned with social realism, to say the least, instead embracing the artificiality of cinema as its main strength and as an effective way to encode his political sensibilities into a film without explicit reference to politics.
Tokyo Drifter is essentially Suzuki’s first fully realized film that truly embodies the creativity and style of the director’s vision. Tokyo Drifter is emblematic of a unique style that could have propelled his career and made his name more prominent if allowed to continue. Even nowadays there are traces of his style in contemporary filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, who pay homage to Suzuki in some of their films.
The colour palette in Tokyo Drifter signifies a director expanding his visual repertoire and subverting yakuza tropes at the same time. The main protagonist, Tetsuya “Phoenix” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari)—often shortened to Tetsu in the movie—is reluctant to move on from the yakuzalifestyle and appears to be giving up his violent actions only because of his loyalty to his boss Kurata. In this Suzuki is commenting on the stubborn and obstinate nature of the yakuzaand their natural propensity to conform. Later on in the movie when Tetsu is forced into exile, Kenji “Shooting Star” Aizawa (Hideako Nitani), saves Tetsu’s life from the Otsuka-affiliated Northern Group. By this point Shooting Star has renounced his employment with Otsuka and has a more cynical outlook on the yakuzalifestyle and its inevitable conclusion. Tetsu is so steadfast in his refusal to adapt and change with circumstances that even when Kurata, facing pressure from Otsuka, eventually does betray Tetsu as Shooting Star predicts and orders his assassination, Tetsu refuses to believe it.
The sequence where Tetsu fights a group of Otsuka allies welding swords (and later use guns themselves) in the rural district of Shonai—which seems to evoke a John Ford Western film—emphasizes the tension between modernity and tradition in the yakuza, although as mutually destructive forces. After Tetsu fends off the low level henchmen, he stands on a train track, squaring off against Otsuka’s main assassin Tetsuzo “The Viper” (Tamio Kawaji) in a cowboy/fast draw-type scenario. Tetsu is framed in front of an oncoming train and Viper is framed by snowy mountains, both existing as implacable forces who stubbornly refuse to acquiesce to the inevitably of technological progress (as symbolized by the train), only moving out of the way as the train comes perilously close to running over the two opponents.
Tetsu is so corroded by an obedient mentality to the yakuzalifestyle that when later in the movie when Shooting Star meets up with him again in Sasebo in a Western-style cowboy saloon (called the ‘Western Saloon’) operated by Kurata associate Umetani (Isao Tamagawa), Tetsu refuses to believe Kurata has betrayed him. It is not until the character Shooting Star draws Umetani out that Tetsu realises that it is not just external threats from Otsuka and his crew. Kurata associate Umetani, who is ordered to eliminate Tetsu and has an opportunity to shoot him during an alleyway chase, eventually decides not to kill Tetsu, thereby dooming himself to being a drifter and exile in the same manner as Tetsu. Exile as a yakuza, or‘ronin,’ is the inevitable end for all gangsters, and it is a reality that both Shooting Star and Umetani now face, but that Tetsu will have to reluctantly confront. It is also a commentary on the end of the cinematic yakuza as standard bearers of tradition, honour and respect.
For Tetsu, however, his moment of realization does not occur until the end of the movie when he finally confronts Kurata for his betrayal. Tetsu returns to Tokyo to face Kurata in a bizarrely choreographed showdown at Club Alulu where his fiancé Chiharu (Cheiko Mastubara) is singing. In this scene Tetsu is colour-coded in an off-white suit in a largely monochromatic and sparsely decorated white set, even garnering a sudden spotlight on him to emphasize the importance of Tetsu’s arrival. Indeed, the lack of abundant decor and the all-white environment evokes a type of generalized Heaven, signifying Tetsu’s redemption now that he has decided to abandon his oath of loyalty to Kurata.
Tetsu ends the film in a rather stoic fashion, echoing the cowboys of the Western film genre, turning away from Chiharu and telling her “a drifter needs no woman.” Recognizing that his lifestyle, which will now be that of a drifter without a yakuza clan to protect him, is doomed to violence and chaos. Tetsu is too far ingrained in this life, so he was to walk away from Chiharu, much like the well-known image of the roninor the gunslinger of the Old West. So Tetsu walks down a white hallway, eventually pausing just outside of the club to look at some neon signs, another symbol of encroaching modernity.
Suzuki’s style of films, considered incomprehensible in the 1960s, made more sense in the home video era where irony, camp, and self-referentiality became familiar strategies, forming a piece to the puzzle as to Suzuki’s rising prominence in the late 1990s to early 2000s. For a video savvy viewer, this approach of pop art stylization, jazz music, and a mix of Western influences in a distinctly Japanese yakuzagenre meant that Suzuki’s films would have a significant amount of identifiable features for a Western viewer. Tokyo Drifter uses the “borderless action” style of Nikkatsu to full effect, incorporating elements of cowboy imagery, jazz music, 1960s pop art aesthetics, and fashions of the 1960s youth culture in a yakuzafilm.
Suzuki would enjoy a career revival of sorts in the 1990s due to film festivals and the rise of the home video market. Because Suzuki did not follow any specific geographical, or even spatial, sense to his works and instead employed a more purely aesthetic model of filmmaking, films like Tokyo Drifter avoid the problem of regionality. Tokyo Drifter uses the iconography of the yakuza genre, but in a way that does not adhere to distinctively Japanese cultural markers that would alienate or confuse international audiences. Nikkatsu’s “borderless action” films borrowed from American and European sources and put them a genre blender so as to appeal to a younger, more cosmopolitan audience of movie-goers, without much reference to reality. Suzuki, however, embraced the “borderless action” style to create a unique vision that allowed him experiment and play with the cinematic form.
Despite Suzuki was repeatedly warned by Nikkatsu to tone down his creative impulses and stylistic flourishes. The eventual result was that he was not only fired, but was also blackballed by the studio. Suzuki would spend the next decade working in television or on commercials, toiling in relative obscurity because his movies were not allowed to be shown in the cinema. Movie buffs and video store clerks could now watch Tokyo Drifter and recommend it to friends and customers. Tokyo Drifter shows a director on the verge of a creative momentum that could have propelled Suzuki beyond mere cult status had he not been blackballed by Nikkatsu and forbidden to work in theatrical releases.