Written by: Michael Den Boer on December 15th, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1966
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Writer: Yasunori Kawauchi
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Ryuji Kita, Eiji Gô
BluRay released: December 13th, 2011
Approximate running time: 83 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Widescreen / 1080 Progressive
Sound: DTS-HD Mono Japanese
BluRay Release: Criterion Collection
Region Coding: Region A
Retail Price: $39.95
Synopsis: A loyal Yakuza henchmen named Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is beaten up by Otsuka’s gang at the shipyards because he refuses to join their gang and betray his mentor Kurata, who has recently disbanded his gang and decided to become a legitimate businessman. To force Kurata’s hand, Otsuka’s gang gets the loan shark that has the deed to Kurata’s property to sign over the debt to them. Things become more complicated, when Kurata refuses to sign over the property to them. So they try once again to persuade Tetsu to come over to their side, by kidnapping his girlfriend a lounge singer named Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara). Unfortunately for them, Tetsu remains one step ahead of them and rescues his girlfriend from their attempted kidnapping.
Not willing to give up so easily, Otsuka’s gang frame’s Tetsu for a murder that he did not commit. Not wanting to cause his mentor anymore trouble Tetsu decides to become a drifter, until everything cools off. Tetsu briefly finds refugee with the members of a South Group a gang that is friendly with Kurata. Shortly after his arrival, he finds himself caught up in a power struggle between the South Group and the North Group. In one last bid to get what he wants, Otsuka forms a alliance with Kurata and their first order of business is to kill Tetsu. When word reaches Tetsu of his former mentors betrayal, who goes back to Tokyo to confront Kurata and end this affair once and for all.
A few years ago when I first came across Tokyo Drifter, I knew nothing about Seijun Suzuki or his films. Needless to say, Tokyo Drifter would peak my interest in Seijun Suzuki’s work and over the last few years more of his work has been released for western audiences to experience for the first time. From the first time that I saw Tokyo Drifter, my appreciation for Seijun Suzuki’s unique cinematic style has continued to grown with each new viewing. And by the time that he would make Tokyo Drifter, he was already treading on thin ice with Nikkatsu, who would fire him the following year after he completed what is arguably his masterpiece Branded to Kill.
Visually the easiest way to sum up Tokyo Drifter, is that is a cross between the style often associated with MGM musicals of the 1950’s and the James Bond / Spy films that were at their apex during the mid-1960’s.
In what may appear to be a odd stylistic choice, opening a color film, with a black and white sequence. This cleverly designed opening does a superb job setting up this film explosive use of color. And at the end of this opening sequence there is a red gun that offers up contrast to the starkness of the black and white footage. This use of red in this sequence serves as a foreshadowing of the bloodshed to come. Another area in which the colors contribute greatly to the grander scheme of things, are the clothes which the characters wear. And where most Yakuza films from this era had characters, who wore black or darker colors, this film goes against the grain with its use of brighter pastel colored clothing.
Narrative wise, though some would say that Tokyo Drifter lacks structure and follows to much of a free flow approach to the story at hand. In this reviewers opinion, there is just enough structure that things never fully go awry, though there are a few moments were things do teeter dangerously close to the point of no return.
Content wise, Tokyo Drifter explores themes of loyalty and responsibility that have their roots in Samurai and Yakuza films. There is one scene in particular that exemplifies this two type of genres in this film, it is a scene that takes place in a snow covered countryside, that that is accentuated by gunfights and samurai swordfights.
Other standout sequences include a scene in which Kurata’s secretary is caught in the crossfire of a gun battle and her death is viewed from above as she makes her final death crawl. And the film’s bombastic finale that features a acrobatic gun battle, is another high point.
Performance wise, the cast more than hold their own in their respective roles, with this film most memorable performance coming from Eiji Gô (Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs) in the role of Tanaka one of Otsuka’s henchmen. Though not as explosive of a performance as what one would come to expect from a Seijun Suzuki leading man, Tetsuya Watari (Graveyard of Honor, Yakuza Graveyard) gives an admirable performance in what would be one of his first starring roles.
And while the way in which the main theme in forcefully integrated into the story at hand may put some viewers off. For the most part it is does in a inventive enough way that it actually becomes a character unto itself. Ultimately Tokyo Drifter is a visually opulent tale in which logic takes a back seat and caution is thrown to the wind, as Seijun Suzuki sublime style of storytelling takes us from one bizarre set piece to another.
Tokyo Drifter comes on a 50 GB dual layer BluRay. The film is presented in a 1080 progressive anamorphic widescreen. And just like Criterion’s recent re-release of Branded to Kill, this new transfer for Tokyo Drifter is a huge improvement over this films previous home video releases. Colors have never looked as vibrant as they do for this release, black levels look consistently good, details look crisp and there are no problems with compression.
This release comes with one audio option, a DTS-HD Mono mix in Japanese and removable English subtitles have been included with this release. The audio also shows signs of improvement over previous releases, there are no problems with distortion or background noise, dialog always comes through clearly and everything sounds balanced.
Extras for this release include a trailer for the film (2 minutes 48 seconds – anamorphic widescreen, in Japanese with English subtitles) and a interview with director Seijun Suzuki from 1997 (20 minutes 12 seconds – 4:3 full frame, in Japanese with English subtitles), who discusses how he got into the film industry, and switching from Shochiku to Nikkatsu, how he avoided directing scripts that he deemed bad, how all films at Nikkatsu were shot in 25 days or less, the importance of the look of any given film, Tokyo Drifter, its cast and the Nikkatsu’s reaction to the final product. Other extras include Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu (12 minutes and 12 seconds – anamorphic widescreen, in Japanese with English subtitles), who discuss the script, the film’s recurring theme song, production design, why the opening sequence was shot in black and white, the use of color in Tokyo Drifter, the cast and why the film’s original ending was changed. Rounding out the extras is a sixteen page booklet with a essay about Tokyo Drifter that was written by film critic Howard Hampton. Overall Criterion Collection gives Tokyo Drifter its best release to date.
Note: Criterion Collection are also releasing Tokyo Drifter on DVD.