Usually, I refer to Japanese films by their original Japanese titles, but in this case I’ve gone for the English version. Tokyo Drifter is its name, and from that name you can recognize that this is a style-driven piece. For those of you who don’t know me, style-driven is just what I’m looking for in a movie.
Directed in 1966 by Seijun Suzuki, Tokyo Drifter [東京流れ者 or Tokyo Nagaremono] follows a yakuza hitman gone straight, Tetsu the Phoenix. Forced to flee Tokyo because of gang rivalries, Tetsu makes his way from place to place, pursued by a nemesis figure, Tatsu the Viper. Tetsu is faced with conflicted characters, betrayal, and love. In spite of the fact that at first he has no idea how to deal with any of those problems, he comes to understand his new drifter lifestyle.
The film opens up with a black and white sequence. Suzuki quickly establishes his stylistic direction in the first few minutes; he plays with perspective, spatial relationships and shot types. It isn’t until the credits begin that the color shots begin, and once they begin it’s all about color. The color is supposedly representing Tokyo after the 1964 Summer Olympics. I enjoyed the opening credits because they featured several shots around Tokyo, taken in 1966. Things were different then.
Suzuki’s spectacular color work, however, was done mostly with interior shots — my favorite of which being the room which begins pitch black with red and goes pure white. From:
Tokyo Drifter’s story is based on a simple enough plot of yakuza deceit and fighting. However, it is juxtaposed over settings that are impossible [or at the very least, implausible] in the real world. The jazz club in the film might as well be on the moon. It fits, though, and the perspective in some of the cooler shots is made possible by a seemingly neverending plane.
The best part of this movie, and in my opinion the high point of any good yakuza movie, is the coolness of the main character. Tetsu is a class-A badass who gets the job done. Just the idea of calling oneself a “drifter” is cool enough, but he brings it to the next level. His light-colored clothing throughout the film, the mystique of his character and the way he seems to melt in and out of scences makes him almost ghostlike. I don’t care what anyone says, a character who intimidates enemies by whistling his own theme song is about the coolest thing ever.
Tokyo Drifter remains a major influence on color-driven film and the whole yakuza drama. Not bad, considering Seijun Suzuki’s bosses at Nikkatsu were trying to rein in his crazy styling. In terms of Japanese yakuza films, this may be the ultimate cool. And it’s available on the Criterion Collection or on Netflix to rent or to watch instantly. Highly recommended.