Written by: Michael Den Boer on April 29th, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1966
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Writer: Yasunori Kawauchi
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Ryuji KitaDVD Released:
February 23rd, 1999
Approximate Running Time: 83 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.20 Letterboxed Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono Japanese
DVD Release: Criterion Collection
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
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.
An early effort from Criterion, Tokyo Drifter isn’t as clean as Criterion’s Branded to Kill transfer and the 2.20:1 letterboxed transfer could have benefited from a anamorphic enhancement. The quality of the transfer improves as the film progresses, but you still have to put up with a fair amount of artifacts. The color isn’t as vivid as other Suzuki titles on DVD and the black-and-white sequence at the beginning of the film alternates between being too dark and being too bright.
The audio in presented in its original Japanese Mono. The sound is full for a mono track and the dialog comes through clear. The subtitles are easy to read and follow.
John Zorn’s informative liner notes and the DVD’S only extra is a seventeen minute interview with director Seijun Suzuki as he discusses his movies and influences. Overall Tokyo Drifter gets a mediocre audio / video presentation from Criterion Collection.