Saturday, October 6, 2007



Tetsu is a reformed gangster who is still loyal to his boss, Kurata. Kurata is in debt, and when the rival Otsuku gang attempts to swindle Kurata office building away from him, Tetsu attempts to be a middle man, but things go wrong and two people involved wind up dead. Tetsu decides to take the blame, leaving Kurata in the clear, and heads off to northern Japan to lure away suspicion. But Otsuku knows that Tetsu must die if he is to stay free, and sends his henchmen to kill him. Tetsu evades them, and heads to southern Japan, but Otsuku's connections are wide, and he is found once again. This time though, it is Kurata who betrays Tetsu and makes the call to kill him. When Tetsu learns of his boss' betrayal, he returns to Tokyo to see for himself, and prepares for one final showdown.

Mention the name of director Seijun Suzuki, the mastermind behind this jazzy gangster drama, and you will most likely either get a blank inquisitive look or hear lavish praise. The man is like Japanese version of Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol, who uses pop as art and vice versa as he splashes bright colored sets and costumes, flashy (for the time) camerawork, and over-the-top melodrama across his silver screen canvas. Suzuki sees cinema differently then most do, but as a mere "hired gun" for Nikkatsu Studios, had to make due with slipping his unique ideas into his previous outings for them. These playful uses with light and with the characters did not go unnoticed, and for this picture he was commanded to play it straight. Instead he went even further than he did before.

In the world of TOKYO DRIFTER, the criminals wear red and blue suits that would not be uncommon in a Dick Tracy comic, and sunglasses that are never removed. Dance clubs, seedy dives, apartments and offices are all drench in color, not from paint, but from some mysterious and unknown light source, that change with the mood of the scene. In this world, not only does the actor who portrays Tetsu sing the haunting and melodic theme ballad, but the character Tetsu knows the theme, and hums it to himself incessantly. In this world, there is always someone who pops up at just the right moment to watch your back, whether it be just after the cuffs are slapped on, or in the middle of a brawl that takes place in, where else, but the Saloon Western, a bar styled with swinging doors, breakaway chairs, and burlesque dancers.

The opening and closing scenes of TOKYO DRIFTER are particular dissecting, which will help to note the depth that Suzuki intended, and that the color and style was meant to go beyond just 60's bubblegum pop inspiration. The opening sequence is filmed in gritty black and white, still a staple in cinema at the time, especially for lower budget b-movies. But within this scene are two flashes of color, before bursting into the full-color title sequence, as if to say the film is shaking of traditional black and white convictions. In the final shootout in a club, literally everything is white (which is the color of death in Japanese culture), and Tetsu has also changed into a white suit, which portrays Tetsu as not only the death of his rivals, but also that Tetsu has accepted that he is figuratively dead as well, and now with no place to call home is doomed to wander forever.

Suzuki and writer Yasunori Kawauchi attempted to inject the dying yakuza code within its characters, allowing those that still followed honor, loyalty gratefulness and forgiveness the chance to live, while punishing those who would betray, scheme, and undermine with death, all hidden beneath what would become trademark stylings. However, Nikkatsu Studios didn't see it that way when they were given a picture that they didn't know how to market. Suzuki went on to make two more pictures for them, before being fired for ignoring the studio's demands and continuing to make, in their words, incomprehensible movies. Incomprehensible? Hardly. It just took a few years for everyone to catch up with him.


JD said...

I like this film a lot.

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