Tokyo Drifter Review
From cult Japanese Director Seijun Suzuki comes a relatively simple tale of gangsters trying to go straight and the troubles they face yet by injecting the film with every shade of primary colour you can imagine and controlling the onscreen imagery and assaulting our ears with a fine selection of music Suzuki delivers in a way that was sadly only fully appreciated many years after its original release back in 1966. The film is of course Tokyo Drifter.
The story begins with our lead character, Tetsu, being ruffed up by a local Yakuza gang who are trying to determine if the stories that he and his boss have gone straight are indeed true. Soon after Tetsu and his boss, Kurata, discover that going straight is not too easy an objective to complete as said former rival gang are determined to make life difficult for them. After a series of mishaps (due to the rival gangs devious plotting) Tetsu is forced to leave his boss to allow the air to settle, thus he becomes a Tokyo Drifter. Taking to the role with a sense of adventure Tetsu heads out into the world only to be pursued by rival gang members, while goings on back home lead to tests of loyalty for everyone involved and result in a tense finale.
Tetsuya Watari embellishes the role of Tetsu to a level where he simply is one of the coolest characters to ever grace Japanese cinema. From his laid back attitude to the sense of integrity and intelligence he brings to his character he certainly carries the film with a grace that was required, and it is something that Director Seijun Suzuki draws out even further thanks to the wonderful colours and situations he puts Tetsu in. It is of course this wonderful sense of style that has made Suzuki the cult icon he is today, and for my first Suzuki film Tokyo Drifter has certainly set a standard that I find it hard to believe he will beat! The proceedings begin in Black and White until we see a single bright red object on the screen, this not only signifies the beginning of a world drenched in colour but also a technique Suzuki employs whereby a single object on the screen will change colour at the directors will, to seemingly reflect what is happening onscreen but more importantly to impose the characters emotions on to us in a more visual manner. When we are plunged into a world of colour what stands out the most is the sense of framing which makes full use of the scope format, and allows for the repeated use of single coloured walls and suits to really make their impression on you, to the point where the surroundings and design really do become a part of the film.
Another area of equal importance to the film is that of music and it is here that I noticed the first of many 'possible' influences Suzuki has had on future directors. I am of course talking about the way in which Suzuki uses the main theme song (a captivating, sometimes almost haunting song under the same name as the film) repeatedly, which is a common trait of famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Upon the third or fourth use of the song I found myself humming along while I was in full swing by the time Tetsu is strolling through the snow singing Tokyo Drifter, in a sequence that could have been used for a music video if the need had been there. Other areas where you can see possible future influences Suzuki had on directors and indeed where he himself may have drawn inspiration from can be found in the various action sequences we see throughout the film. As Tetsu drifts we are treated to some wonderfully staged gunfights that feel like they are straight out of the classic westerns, while a mammoth bar-room brawl erupts that also echoes what we have seen in westerns, but due to the lurid colour scheme it somehow reminded me of the old Batman television series! Another sequence appears very similar to the classic samurai movies (gunfights, swordfights and fistfights, this movie has them all!) with a group of inexperienced sword wielders taking the nervous jittery approach that is so often a delight to watch in the classics from Kurosawa et al. Finally, and quite appropriately the final showdown involves some gunplay the likes of which you might expect to see performed by Chow Yun-Fat in a John Woo movie (only not quite so outrageous!) but is instead carried out here with flair by Tetsuya Watari who is every bit the epitome of cool in this film.
Everything I have mentioned with regards to the films style is encapsulated in the final scenes where the onscreen action is played out with stunning attention to detail with the control of framing, setting and lighting all quite exemplary while changes in a single objects colour and the rooms lighting actively reflect the stage of the action and the characters emotions. But maybe I am talking a little too much about the style Sezuki brings to the screen? I should also mention that the story is compelling and on top of the outstanding performance from Tetsuya Watari we have a fine supporting cast who all add to the films appeal while you can even expect a little dry humour to be thrown in to what is already a fine mixture of elements. What you may not like is the films pacing and general onscreen tempo, which some may find a little slow, and the onscreen action may not appeal to all tastes but these really are faults that can only be made by the individual, as you surely cannot deny the quality of the films many outstanding aspects.
This UK release is R0 encoded.
Presented at the original 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement this fully restored and remastered picture is simply outstanding for a film of this age. For starters there is barely a scratch or speck of dirt to be seen and when it does show up it lasts for a matter of frames, with the only other minor picture faults coming in as some brief (and very faded) white vertical lines in the opening Black & White sequence, and a strange shadow that is present on the screen briefly at the 47-minute mark. Surprisingly the picture is virtually free of grain which leaves it open to present us with a fine level of detail throughout, while the lurid colour scheme Suzuki chose is beautifully rendered with Tetsu's powder blue suit looking suitably so, and the richer deeper hues of the clubs and bars equally well presented. Blacks are also well defined while shadow detail is again commendable for a title of this age. There really is very little to pick up on with this presentation, which is basically how I wish all films of this era were treated.
We are provided with the original Japanese Language track in Dolby Digital Mono format, which means the audio, is entirely focused via your centre speaker. There are no glitches to speak of, although if you turn it up to reference level (i.e. neighbour provoking levels!) there is some audible noise and hiss but this will not be heard for typical viewing circumstances. Otherwise this is a generally well-presented track that although it can sound a little harsh at times is mostly pleasing to the ear while the most important parts, the music, sound quite superb despite the limited format.
The optional English subtitles are of a very high standard with no spelling or grammatical errors that I noticed. The only slight problem is the occasional word or sentence that go by untranslated, all of which are secondary to the plot (mostly pleasantries, unimportant information etc) but still slightly disappointing to be missing. I must stress though that this lack of subtitles is very brief and not a cause for concern.
There are absolutely zero extra features but I would like to mention the Menu Screen which features the 'Tokyo Drifter' song and simply feels right and gets you into the mood of the film before you start watching, and maintains the mood as the movie ends and you are dropped back into the menu.
Tokyo Drifter is an absolute joy to watch and serves as a great introduction to the maverick Japanese director, Seijun Suzuki, who paints a world that could be described in so many words it is simply too hard to pick one! Fortunately for us here in the UK Second Sight have served up a fine DVD that although lacking in extras delivers the film in a technically superb package.