Tokyo Drifter

cast: Tetsuya Watari, Hideaki Nitani, and Chieko Matsubara

director: Seijun Suzuki

84 minutes (12) 1966
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Yume DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley

In his excellent The Story Of Film (Pavilion, 2004) Mark Cousins describes director Yasujiro Ozu’s use of ‘intermediate space’ or ‘pillow shots’; linking images which while often having a connection to each other appear to bear no relation to the following ‘action’. Cousins remarks that although Ozu is a classical filmmaker, such devices are un-classical and certainly set Ozu apart from a western filmmaking tradition. Cousins goes on to quote the interpretation made by writer and critic Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), that these shots are the representation of a concept expressed in Zen philosophy. Of course the shots might just be an original way to represent the passage of a short period of time. Cousins suggests that the filmmakers that followed Ozu, like Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, rejected those Zen qualities. And yet in Tokyo Drifter (aka: Tôkyô nagaremono), after yakuza hitman Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) has allowed himself to be beaten up by members of rival boss Otsuka’s gang, to prove that he has reformed, the camera lingers on shots of the quayside, on masts, and the skyline, while Tetsu lies unconscious.

Suzuki uses a catholic approach to filmmaking technique easily adapting western styles and blending them with a Japanese tradition, so he might very well be paying homage to Ozu’s pillow shots when in moments of inevitably inscrutable meditation Tetsu fixes his gaze on a tree outside his boss Kurata’s office building. Kurata and Tetsu, his faithful acolyte, have gone straight for reasons that are never explained. Rival Otsuka wants to own Kurata’s office building and by a subterfuge gains control over the loans that Kurata has raised to finance the lease. Otsuka also has designs on Tetsu’s girlfriend, the nightclub singer Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara). After Tetsu’s gunplay rescues his boss from a sticky situation, he becomes the bone of contention preventing an uneasy truce and opts to leave Kurata becoming the Tokyo drifter of the title. Heading north, Tetsu falls in with Shooting Star (Hideaki Nitani), a former hitman for Otsuka, who warns Tetsu that Kurata will eventually betray him and sacrifice him for peace between the rival factions.

The story with its themes of honour, and loyalty and violence, could be any yakuza movie, but Suzuki’s rich imagination and wayward playfulness transform it into a weird and wonderful trip with an impressive emphasis on design and staging, particularly in the theatrical finale. Given that this film appeared in 1966 in-between Bond movies Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice, with its Japanese setting, it prompts the question what the Bond franchise might have looked like if the producers and directors had cared more about creating a series that reflected the artistic innovations of the period; only Goldfinger seems in tune with the zeitgeist.

Suzuki overwhelms the viewer with his use of colour and his shifts in tone. The film opens in grainy black and white, and has a scene where Tetsu is escorted along a quayside by sharp-suited gangsters – that only lacks the George Baker Selection, performing Little Green Bag, playing over it… Tetsu’s powder-blue suit sets off interiors that recall Point Blank. In the first stage of his exile he is the only dash of colour in the frozen landscapes of the north. Suzuki gets away with obvious imagery like shooting Tetsu through the bars of dividing screens in Kurata’s apartment, imprisoned by his sense of duty perhaps. The director uses POV camerawork and even some hand held shots. Chiharu’s nightclub scenes are pure Hollywood; and there is a barroom fight that would pass muster in a classic western. The film loses its way a little bit in the final third but the stunning final scenes are pure delight.

Tokyo Drifter drew criticism from Suzuki’s bosses at the Nikkatsu studios, and they cut his budget for Branded To Kill, probably hoping that filming in black and white would cramp his exuberant style. Branded To Kill of course proved to be inspirationally dotty and led to Suzuki’s sacking.

The interior of the DVD sleeve has a printed essay by Tony Rayns, considering the film and its conflicting themes of giri and ninjo. There is a Suzuki trailer reel in which it is interesting to note that the contemporary trailers for Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill contrive to make those films look like ordinary action flicks, while the trailers for Princess Racoon, and Pistol Opera, made after Nikkatsu came around to the notion that Suzuki was an asset, revel in his off-the-wall originality. There is a Masumura trailer reel, which conforms to Nikkatsu’s cheap and cheerful ideals of exploitative sex and violence. Tony Rayns appears conducting an interview with Suzuki himself, which is something of an ordeal, as the interpreter starts interpreting Rayns for Suzuki while Rayns is still talking and Suzuki for Rayns while Suzuki is talking. It might have made for more coherence to establish the situation and then cut to subtitles or dubbing for Suzuki’s answers.