Seijunuary: Tokyo Drifter
Our next installment of Seijunuary deals with what is likely Seijun Suzuki’s best-known film, not so much because it’s his greatest work, but because, for a lot of his famous fans, it was the first one they ever saw. Tokyo Drifter was one of the earliest Suzuki films to get a stateside release in a variety of formats (VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray), and because of this, directors like Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino — for many years its biggest champion — became fans and worked its influence, both subtly and blatantly, into their own films.
Tokyo Drifter was made at a time when Suzuki was in hot water with his bosses at Nikkatsu (but then again, so were most of his films). His tendency to visual excess, contempt for the budgets he was handed, and extremely casual attitude to the scripts he was supposed to be filming were grating on the production company’s nerves, so this time they delivered him a tight script, a tighter budget, and a demand to rein in his desire to product visual fireworks a the expense of coherence. Of course, Suzuki ignored the warning, exploited the running time, and went completely nuts with the visuals instead of restricting himself and filming a straightforward yakuza picture. The result is without a doubt his lightest, most inconsequential film, but it’s also the one where he rips up all the stops and lets his imagination run wild, making the most spectacular imagery of all of his ’60s films.
Like a lot of the movies he was cranking out during this period, Tokyo Drifter is both straightforward and perplexing. On its face, the plot is utter simplicity: Phoenix Tetsu, played by the baby-faced Tetsuya Watari, is the favorite son of aging yakuza boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). Kurata is trying to go straight, having divested himself of all his criminal business and bought a building housing a popular nightclub that employs Tetsu’s girlfriend, torch singer Chiharu (Cheiko Matsubara). But he still has enemies, and one of them — the vicious Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi) — wants to squeeze him out of the building and take over the club. After murdering the landlord in aid of a real estate scheme, Otsuka puts Tetsu in an untenable position, forcing him to leave Kurata’s employ and become the drifter of the title, wandering from place to place lest he attract the attention of the various roving gangs of thugs, assassins, and mercenaries who are trying to kill him.
From there on out, it loses any sense of coherence; it’s almost impossible to make sense of any of the subsequent gang feuds, beatdowns, gunfights, and double- and triple-crosses that follow. But, critically, it’s just as impossible to care when the ride is so thrilling. Suzuki throws everything, including the kitchen sink, from his cinematic bag of tricks, into the mix here, and so many of them stick that it’s hard to remember them all: his usual skillful deployment of color (starting, again, in stark black-and-white, shifting to a few critical objects highlighted by color, and then exploding into full-color); amazing sound editing (already rigidly tight at 83 minutes, at least ten of those are given over to Chiharu singing and the narrator belting out the title track); spectacular fight scenes (including one martial brawl that’s a clear predecessor of the hallway fight in Oldboy, and a gunfight that echoes in John Woo’s early work); and stunning displays of the integration of actors and environment (most especially a battle in the snow in northern Japan that can’t help but keep showing up in Quentin Tarantino’s movies).
Watching so many of Suzuki’s films in a row, it’s easy to form the opinion that he’s the anti-Ozu, so thoroughly does he reject the quiet, contemplative pace and silent, solid two-shots of another of another Japanese master. But that’s not entirely true. It’s not wrong to point out his emotional shallowness, his obsession with consumer goods (always beautifully photographed), his dynamism and physicality, his camera constantly moving; but there’s more going on than, er, meets the eye. Watch the beginning of Tokyo Drifter and you’ll see, right at the start of what is, for all its visual flair, a bit of a sprawling mess, and you’ll see the work of a hugely disciplined filmmaker who learned the rules before he started to break them. An opening sequence in black and white, with motionless long shots of deserted streets, empty beaches, busy harbors, and dirty back alleys ends with Tetsu lying immobile, and very possibly dead, on a Tokyo street, being sniffed at by dogs. It’s breathtaking, and a perfect example of what Suzuki is capable of, just before launching you into a crazy world of deranged yakuza and flowery jazz singers.
Most of the film is pure surface. Tetsu is perhaps Suzuki’s most facile hero; after watching the director work with the curious but genuinely hard-looking Joe Shishido, it’s almost funny to see this nattily dressed, pretty young thing who looks like he ought to be in a boy band. For someone who’s supposed to be a legendary enforcer, Tetsu looks more like a fashion model, and despite all the violence in the film, he seems hapless in some of his fights, getting through them through sheer luck and daring. Chiharu has even less to do in this movie than most women do in Yakuza films, and is so fragile that she might as well come equipped with a fainting couch, and Kurata’s ultimate betrayal doesn’t make a lot of sense. The closest Tokyo Drifter gets to any kind of message is a scene in a club where a gang of drunken American soldiers are paraded in front of cackling Japanese girls, who whack them over the head with bottles. I’m sure that went over big for domestic consumption.
But it’s that same scene that makes Tokyo Drifter so worth watching: from the design of the club, a beautiful Old-West riff with swinging-London touches, to the gorgeous visual gloss of the camerawork, following a moving brawl from one end of the place to the other, it’s an incredible thing to look at, and a testament to how Suzuki’s imagination couldn’t be contained, even when people actively tried.