Tokyo Drifter Review
Boss Kurata (Kita Ryuji) has disbanded his gang, in favour of living out an honest life. By his side is Tetsu (Watari Tetsuya), a young man who has loyally served the person he considers to be a father to him. But Kurata is in debt and he owes eight million yen to Mr. Yoshii, who is currently serving as administrator of the Kurata building. Tetsu tells Yoshii that he will get him the money within five months and Yoshii agrees to his terms, but a problem lies over the horizon. Yoshii’s secretary, Mutsuku (Hamakawa Tomoko) is currently dating a member of Otsuka’s gang, and Otsuka (Esumi Hideaki) decides that he wants to make a play for Kurata’s turf by using Mutsuku to mislead Yoshii and have him sign over the deed to the building.
When Yoshii is killed Otsuka takes over the building and Kurata feels like all of his options are used up. After being beaten up a few times Tetsu decides that it would perhaps be best if he fled Tokyo and drifted around Japan, leaving behind his girlfriend and club singer Chiharu (Matsubara Chieko). Kurata tells him to visit a man named Senzo (Tamagawa Isao) who runs the South Gang and is in charge of the “Saloon Western” in Sasebo. Tetsu arrives and meets Otsuka’s former right-hand man Kenji - a.k.a. Shooting Star (Nitani Hideaki) - who tells him not to trust anyone, even Kurata. Meanwhile an assassin named Viper (Kawaji Tamio) is hot on Tetsu’s trail, and soon Tetsu finds himself unavoidably heading back to Tokyo for one final showdown.
Seijun Suzuki’s output for Nikkatsu began to rapidly decline after Tokyo Drifter was shot in 1966, with the studio angered, accusing him of not only sabotaging the career of Watari Tetsuya, who this was made for, but also continually ignoring the scripts that he was being given. Up until then he’d been putting out on average three to four films a year for them, but their patience, or lack thereof, was at its tether. Fighting Elegy and in particular Branded to Kill would signify the end of a long and frustrating career with the company who had grown all too weary of the man they helped create. Tokyo Drifter is Suzuki’s defiant answer to corporate convention. It’s well known by now that the director was sick and tired of an all too repetitive film industry which thought only of furthering profits by putting out the same clichéd material time after time. Despite business and economics playing a massive part, Suzuki felt that films should be more deserving of artistic expression, and certainly Tokyo Drifter could be held as being one of the most expressionistic pieces of cinema ever made. While not immediately apparent unless observed within the context of Suzuki’s difficult plight, the film is one huge gathering of emotional torment; a cynical production that stamps its frustrated mark on every single frame and literally rips the piss out of standard studio genres.
Seijun Suzuki was, and still is a pure maverick; a loner who would never willingly heed to convention, and in that sense Tokyo Drifter feels that much more personal as he was methodically being filtered out of Nikkatsu’s employment. Everything about Tokyo Drifter is anarchic: chaos of the highest order, where traditional narrative is thrown out of the window and sight and sound echoes every character’s emotion and subsequent action. The film is every bit a living comic book, which might just be the intention, with the director obsessively portraying the young Mutsuku as being an avid manga reader - she who is amongst the young generation that perhaps Suzuki is aiming his feature toward. Accordingly he sets up each frame as if it was lifted directly from a page: over the shoulder shots, tight framing and remarkable compositions which link effortlessly from panel to panel, while dialogue is sparingly used, even during the most tense moments. The editing throughout is sublime, always keeping the film on its toes as characters get from A-B with seemingly little effort, which curiously leaves much to the viewer’s imagination, such as how do characters end up getting themselves out of awkward predicaments, with these people asking the same questions and Suzuki denying us physical evidence and little to no exposition.
In fact, although the primary cast members are perfectly accomplished in their roles (a few of whom were Suzuki regulars and can be seen elsewhere, such as the previously covered The Flowers and the Angry Waves), much of the film’s credit belongs to its set design and assortment of pastel shades and neon glimmer. Production designer Takeo Kimura turns each location into as much an actor as the human players; colours interact by washing away or blending in with certain actions: drab, yet flowery mob buildings are perfectly contrasted against swinging discos, as well as the main club “A Ru Ru”, which is predominantly made up of golden hues, until the amazing finale in which the black and white suits and set design are played once again in surreal fashion, echoing the earlier opening segment which was oppositely filmed on B&W stock. When Tetsu arrives in Sasebo’s “Saloon Western” the aesthetics begin to mirror a giant Wild-Wild Lego Land, with huge blocks of primary colours set against a foreground of casual-suited customers and U.S. sailors, while throughout most of the film the leading players go around in coloured garments; from Tetsu’s sky blue suit, to the violent red of Otsuka, with Shooting Star modelling a vivid green jacket. Set against a snowy backdrop throughout the final act the images pulsate rapidly and Suzuki becomes more and more wrapped up in obscuring his narrative with forceful, off-centre and angled grey tints, which impose upon a wintery landscape, somehow enhancing the chase between assassin and drifter in this abstract little world of his.
Though that’s not to say that Tokyo Drifter lacks entirely in its narrative. Reverting back to this it’s remarkably simple, yet it delivers the kind of poignancy, social commentary and drama that would befit any solidly entertaining Yakuza film. But with that said it’s far from a serious affair; while it does touch upon romantic sub-plots and gang rivalry it’s far too loosely played, with many a wink directed at the audience, and of course Nikkatsu itself. Seijun Suzuki traverses familiar set ups by making a mockery of them, and while the romance between Chiharu and Tetsu is arguably the weakest aspect of the entire film, I don’t suppose that the director really gave a toss at this gruelling stage in his career. He skips through as much as possible, merely highlighting its importance for the sake of character motivation. Much of time is otherwise spent on delivering fast gags: it’s hard to believe that a very funny scene involving Tetsu fall down an elevator shaft after being lured by Otsuka is played for anything other than laughs, while the bar brawl which takes place in “Saloon Western” is hilarious, whilst also carrying the sting of U.S. infringement: drunken Japanese females go on to ridicule American sailors, while Japanese men wearing no trousers run about and a western dancer imposes herself upon an indifferent - and perhaps more so disgusted - Tetsu. But Suzuki also finds time to stick to some convention, with one or two twists involving the rival factions between Kurata and the North and South groups. To his credit he invests in a well realised relationship, which explores loyal father and son-like bonds, while setting up inevitable separations. He underlines the film with the hard tale of crooks trying to go straight, but finding themselves running into walls at every turn; at the same time the film’s signature theme is often sung or whistled by our protagonist (a tailored Watari Tetsuya), which serves to pin point an individualist ideal in the face of impending betrayal.
It’s difficult to talk about Tokyo Drifter in any traditional sense, just as the film itself can be difficult to comprehend from those with firm preconceptions about what makes a film a film; does it really have to conform to set rules in a traditional three tier structure? Does it need to paint the world in realistic colours to make its point or rely on lengthy exposition and heavy dialogue? The power of cinema has shown us over the years that rules are made to be broken, that people do eventually become bored of generic film making and that every now and then new steps must be taken to prevent things from drying up. Seijun Suzuki dared to challenge his peers and sought out to supply his audiences with new experiences. It may have taken a few more years for people to appreciate and see for themselves what he was saying and trying to do, but there’s no doubting today that he had his finger firmly on the pulse of cinema goers forty years ago. And it looks like he did inspire future generations; the Japanese film industry is as alive as ever, with directors continually defying logic in what has become one of the most colourful entertainment industries in the world.
Yume Pictures’ Tokyo Drifter is the second release we’ve seen in the UK, following on from Second Sight’s release a few years ago. I originally intended to make this a comparison piece, but given that the transfers are identical I see no reason for doing so now. Again, Yume’s cover art is very striking, though I should point out that the copy I was sent is rated 15, whereas the original release and those currently listed online have a rating of 12.
Tokyo Drifter is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio, which has been anamorphically enhanced. The print used is practically pristine, with very little in the way of dirt and scratches. It’s often remarkable how well stored many of these Japanese classics are. Of course the main let down is that the transfer is another standards conversion, but otherwise it’s very pleasant to look at. Detail is considerably good across the board, while contrast and black levels look about as perfect as they could be. Additionally Suzuki’s often striking colour schemes have been awarded solid reproduction. There’s a spot of edge enhancement and minor aliasing lurking about, but otherwise no complaints. There is a form of boxing, with bars to the left and right of the image, though the original image is still preserved. On a TV this matting isn’t as noticeable as the shot below, but there is about half an inch or so still made visible:
The Japanese 2.0 soundtrack provided is adequate. It’s not that it’s awful, but unfortunately, like the previous Second Sight release, it has the exact same high pitched whistle when turned up too much. This can be eliminated by keeping levels down, but it’s a compromise that we shoudn’t have to make. Otherwise Kaburagi Hajime’s wonderfully jazzy percussion score, with its sixties swagger sounds great, while dialogue presents no distortion or drop outs.
Optional English subtitles are included and the translation for the most part is fine. On occasion the timing is slightly off, with the stream appearing before words are uttered, while certain names and words are omitted from time to time, which are usually the kind of obvious things when character names are spoken or if someone picks up the phone.
In addition to a Tony Rayns essay printed on the reverse of the sleeve and trailers for several of their other releases, Yume provides a fifty minute UK exclusive interview, which was also conducted by Rayns on 28th June 2006 for the Daiwa Foundation Suzuki retrospective, celebrating the man’s fifty years as a director. Tony Rayns, with the help of a translator, discusses with Seijun Suzuki his career at Nikkatsu, from his beginnings up until his firing. They talk about attitudes at the time and how Suzuki went about working with the same old scripts he was being handed time in and time out. Contracts are discussed, which involved particular requirements from the studio in regards to actors, but more interestingly we learn that the director had a lot of free reign on set: the reason he got away with so much and never got found out until a film was complete was because Nikkatsu never interfered, they just assumed he’d follow the scripts. Naturally then Rayns discusses mainly his last three films: Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy and Branded to Kill, the latter of which Suzuki actually did as a favour to Nikkatsu - the reason being they had no script and were quite frankly desperate. Afterwards things move on to Suzuki’s freelance directing career, bringing us right up to speed with Princess Racoon, which takes up a fair amount of discussion, from casting to choosing the right music and style; his dream project for many years, which he was finally able to achieve. The final fifteen minutes is a Q&A session, where we get some standard questions.
The downside is that the sound quality isn’t exactly great; it’s a camcorder job and while the main interview gets by without many hitches, the Q&A is dogged by background noise involving traffic and some of the people asking questions in the back are difficult to make out. There’s also a cut with about eight minutes left, which I can only presume was a battery change. When it comes back we’ve missed a question, but it catches up easily enough. Overall it’s a pleasant inclusion on this disc. Although Tony Rayns leads with a lot of material that Suzuki fans with minimal knowledge of his work already know, the director - who despite suffering from pulmonary emphysema and looking a little fragile at times - provides some great answers, always keeping his wits about him and generally being a delight to see on such a rare occasion.
For anyone who has yet to witness a Seijun Suzuki feature and wants to dive straight into the deep end, I can only recommend Tokyo Drifter as being a perfect introduction. It’s a superb example of how to spin a standard tale into something truly magical that keeps within a strictly brief run time. A lot of directors these days, or perhaps studios employing them, fail to see that and Seijun Suzuki should be held as a perfect role model in how to be continually challenging and thought provoking in an industry that’s all too often afraid of change.