In Japan, what kind of film would ever feature a stoic, cool tough former gangster that can whistle or sing a song while guns are pointed at him?
The answer is “Tokyo Drifter”, the 1966 film directed by Seijun Suzuki who has earned a worldwide following of cinema fans due to his experimental visual style, humor and nihilistic coolness that his style of films were ahead of its time.
While we are graced with films with visual style, humor and coolness by Beat Takeshi, Takashi Miike, Kazuaki Kiriya to name a few… Seijun Suzuki was part of the Nikkatsu company that churned two movies a week and had to work with a low budget, be creative and churn out a film within 25 days. Needless to say, executives didn’t understand Suzuki’s style, they criticized him, they talked down to him but what they didn’t know was that his style was not being rebellious, it was his style.
You can call his style “surreal” but what Nikkatsu wanted was traditional-style filmmaking, Seijun Suzuki who created 40 B-movies for the company between 1956 and 1967 and he was anything but traditional.
After “Tokyo Drifter”, he created two movies including his masterpiece “Branded to Kill” and the company had enough of Suzuki’s style of filmmaking. While he never complained, he was fired from his job and successfully sued the company for wrongful dismissal but in Japanese business tradition, if you sue an entertainment company, you will be blacklisted (which still goes on today in Japan) and in this case, Suzuki was blacklisted for ten years.
In Japan, because he stood up to the big entertainment company, he became a counterculture icon and his films were shown at midnight screenings to a packed audience.
In America, many cinema fans appreciated Suzuki’s work because of its visual, surreal style that was not as common to see in Japanese gangster films.
Visually stylish and cool, “Tokyo Drifter” was an avante garde film that was ahead of its time!
Each time I have watched “Tokyo Drifter”, it’s one of those films that I never grown tired of watching. When I was younger, I used to equate “Tokyo Drifter” almost like a James Bond film. Stylish in presentation, suave protagonist that is always calm, cool, collected and great with a gun and isn’t afraid in getting into a brawl.
Granted, the film is a yakuza story after all, but what I enjoyed about this film is its presentation that is so awkward and sometimes unusual, but in a very cool way!
For example, the introduction of the film is shown in black and white. But the contrast of the black and white is done in a way that looks nothing like your typical B&W film and then he spots a toy gun in red, how often do you see a gangster film with this type of artistic presentation. Never.
Another scene features an accidental shooting as one of Otsuka’s gang member’s girlfriend is shot and killed. Typically, you would see the girl shot, perhaps a closeup of the face and then the character falling to the ground. For Suzuki, we get a shot from high above. She gets up, feels the shot, rips the top of her dress up, falls and dies and then we get a close up shot as we see the blood flowing down the top of her breast.
Another shot features Tetsu walking through a snowy path with his light blue suit, on white snow but on the right is a red mailbox. There are several of these artistic shots that I absolutely love looking at.
And then you have the action, from the perfectly posed Tetsu shooting off his gun at an enemy to a scene where the enemy thinks they got him down, but then he starts singing or whistling his “Tokyo Nagaremono” song and eventually escapes death.
This is your bonafide anti-hero and while he looks like a normal guy, it’s how he’s characterized. Cool, focused and no matter if he gets shot, hit and falls on the ground multiple times…his suit is still pristine and he’s still singing before kicking some ass!
Even the other characters have their own distinction. Otsuka is shown primarily with the camera focused on his sunglasses, his henchman Tatsuzo, known as the Viper, is often seen with his silencer, Keiichi the loner is seen with his forest green jacket and Umetani, a friend of Kurata is seen with his suit and leather gloves.
And the set design, while the same set is used, Suzuki and his art director went for creative lighting in order to continue to give this impressive visual style despite the studio cutting their budget in hopes that Suzuki would not be so creative and kept to traditional filmmaking.
Overall, “Tokyo Drifter” is a film that is worth the purchase, mainly for those who love classic Japanese cinema, especially the gangster films. But in this case, it’s not your typical banal yakuza film, it’s stylish, visually creative and surreal and it’s a wonderful film from filmmaker Seijun Suzuki.