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Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter



1966, Dir. Seijun Suzuki

Starring:
Tetsuya Watari, Cheiko Matsubara, Kenji Aizawa

THIS REVIEW IS A PART OF

3B THEATER LOOKS AT BRANDED TO KILL

In 1946, The Big Sleep was released after being labeled "incomprehensible" due to its convoluted plot. The famous story is that director Howard Hawks couldn't figure out who had killed a particular character. The question made its way back to Raymond Chandler, who had written the source novel. Chandler claimed that even he didn't know, so Hawks said the hell with it. Instead of rearranging the plot, he decided to concentrate on making a stylish film that showcased its stars: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The film is now widely regarded as the best the film noir genre has to offer, incomprehensible or not.

Twenty years later, Japan's Nikkatsu studios released Tokyo Drifter, a noir inspired yakuza flick by B film auteur Seijun Suzuki. The studio had given Suzuki one task to accomplish with this film: make a star of lead actor Tetsuya Watari. With that in mind, traditional narrative structure was jettisoned in favor of showcasing Watari doing and saying cool things. While he's not quite in the same league as Toshiro Mifune, Watari had a good run in the 1970s. And while Suzuki is not quite as well known as the other masters of Japanese cinema, his films have acquired critical acclaim and a cult following. Tokyo Drifter and his other most notable noir, Branded to Kill, are heavy influences on Jim Jarmusch's urban samurai film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Echoes of Suzuki's style can also be seen in the films of Takeshi Kitano.

The basic elements of Tokyo Drifter's plot are simple: yakuza boss Kurata and his group, which includes his right hand man "Phoenix" Tetsu (Watari) have gone straight. Of course, events conspire that can't allow them to remain legitimate. Loyalties are tested, which leads to double-crosses, broken hearts, and a whole lot of death, but not in any orderly manner. Suzuki jumps from scene to scene, often ignoring any kind of transition or reference from one moment to another. It sometimes seems as if scenes or lines of dialogue have been intentionally omitted, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks. Some characters are never named, some are referred to by more than one name, and there are at least two characters named Tetsu. Suffice to say that if anyone who thought The Big Sleep was incomprehensible saw Tokyo Drifter they would've shit their pants.

Suzuki achieves a unique, personal style in every aspect of Tokyo Drifter. Most notably and memorably, he goes completely insane with colors creating a palette that is blinding compared to the brooding shadows of traditional noir. The climactic scene in the lounge is an absolute tour-de force of color and light. Characters and their emotions are signified through color, usually in their clothing. The villain wears a bright red coat, while the neutral Shootin' Star wears a drab forest green. Tetsu wears what is referred to as his "powder blue suit of honor" until his focus changes and along with it his wardrobe.

Drifter's script strips noir of its wordy excesses, excising the genre's traditional chunks of expository dialogue and saving the snappy lines ("Even a killer's death isn't pleasant" and "I'm gonna break up this hell or there's no future for me" are favorites). These lines may or may not make sense, but they sound damn cool and therefore serve their purpose. Tetsu encapsulates every weary speech about sacrificing romance for honor in the dismissal of his lounge singer girlfriend: "a drifter needs no woman".

Sly bits of satire are sprinkled throughout, referencing both the noir tradition and the history of Japanese cinema. Tetsu subverts the noir hero archetype by confounding audience expectations of what such a character should look like. Instead of a grizzled, square-jawed tough guy, Suzuki's hero is babyfaced, and the powder blue suit / white shoes getup speaks for itself. Suzuki also sends up the samurai film in the sequence at the snowy hideout. Up to this point the weaponry of the film consists solely of guns, but here dozens of swordsmen come out of nowhere. They run around ineffectually and are scattered by the sound of gunfire. What this sequence does is illustrate a viewpoint held by Suzuki and his peers: the need to create a new Japanese cinema while not discrediting the work of the masters. While Suzuki and his ilk regarded the films of Kurosawa, Ozu, etc. with respect, they also considered them a stifling influence on those who wanted to depict a different version of Japan. This outlook can also be read into the liberal use of the wipe cut, a technique virtually trademarked by Kurosawa.

Suzuki claims that the only objective behind Tokyo Drifter was to create entertainment and the film is an outright success in that respect. Its exhilarating pace, action and color make it seem like a comic book come to life. The fun that Suzuki and Co. had in making the film is apparent in the exuberance of many scenes, particularly the brawl in the western saloon (That's right: yakuza movie, western saloon. Just watch it!). The lack of a coherent story did come back to bite him in the ass in the form of Nikkatsu studio heads who demanded a more logical, commercially viable product next time around. Suzuki gave them Branded to Kill, Nikkatsu gave him his walking papers. Chad can fill you in on the details. Check out his review of Branded to Kill, and by all means check out the insane noir world of Seijun Suzuki.