Tokyo Drifter is a film directed by the Seijun Suzki who passed away in March. Released in 1966 under the Nikatsu Corporation. The film was Suzki’s thirty ninth film under Nikatsu. Drifter was the second to last film before being fired by Nikatsu and subsequent blacklisting from the industry for ten years. Tokyo Drifter visual style and story are considered ahead of its time. Tokyo Drifter’s legacy may not be directly seen that often, but it’s felt through cinema after its release.
The story follows Tetsu “The Phoenix”. A member of a yakuza gang who is trying to go straight. After failing to recruit Tetsu into his yakuza gang, Otsuka decides to kill Tetsu. Tetsu’s boss Kurata then asks Tetsu to become a drifter to protect Tetsu, but mostly his own interest. After drifting through the snowy mountains, and a western saloon Tetsu goes back to Tokyo to confront Kurata who he figured out sent a hit on him. He manages to kill Otsuka and break his oath of loyalty to Kurata. Even though he was free to stay in Tokyo he willingly chooses to continue his new life as a drifter.
The story seems pretty boiler plate today, but it was ahead of its time in the Yakuza genre. Yakuza films before Tokyo Drifter were more like samurai films then traditional American gangster films. The only depictions of the relationship between boss and member seen in Yakuza films was one of un-wavering trust. Even though the characters were criminals the films showed honor among them.
Tokyo Drifter subverted that by having Kurata betraying our hero Tetsu. He also didn’t betray Tetsu for anything honorable he betrayed them for money. This was surprisingly ground breaking territory. Tokyo Drifter starts by showing Tetsus trust in his boss which was the general depiction. We see Tetsu get beat up, kill, and leave Tokyo. Tetsu is also glad to do all of this because he’s doing it for the sake of his boss. The film recognizes the importance of this also with the main arc being Tetsu learning of Kurata’s betrayal.
The film takes inspiration from American gangster films with the betrayal arc, but also with Tetsu wearing a blue powdered suit. The film takes inspirations from westerns. Tetsu is almost ecstatic at the idea of becoming a drifter. The mere idea of becoming a noble hero wandering from one place to another is exciting to him. Tetsu then becomes a cowboy drifting from one town to another solving problems for a little bit. Then at the end when he ‘wins’, and rejects his former girlfriend saying he is a drifter now. We then see him smiling on a staircase before walking off into the darkness. I think the basic interoperation of this ending is his honor demands he keeps on drifting. Another way of seeing this, and I have no real evidence for this is Tetsu saw The Searchers, and believed the right thing to do was walk off. We almost do have a mirror of the final shot of the Searchers with John Wayne’s character walking off to wander for the rest of his days at the end of the climactic battle with Tetsu. The other obvious western influence on this movie is Tetsu goes to a western saloon.
I’m going to say Tokyo Drifter has the greatest scene ever in a western saloon. I know it’s a claim that I have no right to say, and it’s not really an analysis, but I have to say it. Tetsu goes to see a friend who now runs a western styled saloon in Japan. This set is right out of a western movie with the barn doors and the colored class windows. After two Japanese men take off their paints in front of a foreign feather dancer, and start to harass her the bar devolves into a no holds bar slug fest. Everyone just starts punching everyone around them. Extras pick up the prop tables and chairs and start hitting each other with them. Its clear there was almost no direction given to some of the extras in this scene. Also during this chaos we have a hitman trying to shoot Tetsu but gets dragged into the mess. During the scene Tetsu and a friend meet back to back and are about to strike each other. When our heroes lock eyes they then laugh at the absurdity of the scene, and then Tetsu gets a chair smacked across his head. If you go watch the scene a couple of times you’re going to notice the extras are also smiling and laughing also. Which is what I’m doing just remembering the scene.
There is a lot of absurd scenes like the western saloon brawl. Early in the film we have a hitman tracking Tetsu. Tetsu then distracts him by putting a car through a crusher. We then get a three minute scene of the car being crushed while we hear the movies theme “Tokyo Drifter” being sung by Tetsu. Tokyo Drifter is sung five times in the movie also, and our hero whistles it constantly. Another of the numerous absurd scenes is when a yakuza base is being attacked. The attackers charge in with wooden swords and then we hear gun shots and they run out. This is another connection to the changing of the values of yakuza. Yakuza films of the 60s didn’t have many guns in them. Instead heroes brandish swords. Climaxes were commonly sword fights. So the rival clan charges in again, and this time the clan inside only have wooden swords also. Then they scream at each other for a second before a big shot member from Tokyo comes in shoots one of the clan members then yells “Stupid Hicks.” This is just one of numerous absurd and somewhat surreal scenes in Tokyo Drifter.
This is helped by the lighting and colors. Tokyo Drifter uses mood lighting to accomplish its goals Tokyo Drifter is never afraid to flaunt its lighting even when it doesn’t make sense. Early in the film a girlfriend of a random goon gets shot we see behind the glass of the scene red lights shining through to show the rage of the goon. As soon as Tetsu kills him though the lights abruptly shut off. The climax of the film before our hero arrives the set is blanketed in darkness. The characters wearing black suits besides Tetsu’s former girlfriend. Then as soon as Tetsu arrives changing from his powdered blue suit into a white suit half of the lights come on. We get a mix of light and shadow as Tetsu fights. As soon as Tetsu wins though all of the lights come on the room is devoid of darkness. It especially works because besides the piano and guns everything in the room is white.
Tokyo Drifter from pre-production to finished film it was made in 29 days. All forty films Seijun Suzuki made at Nikatsu were made around a month. Seijun Suzuki had to make films like this because he was a contract worker under Nikatsu. The way Nikatsu made films were that they handed directors a script, and if they refused the forfeited their jobs. Suzuki usually rewrote most of the script though along with some trusted friends. Suzuki also never storyboarded his movies he decided the shots when he arrived on set. At the peak of the company in the 60s Nikatsu was releasing two movies a week.
Most of Suzuki’s early works are not worth seeing unless you really like B movies. Even though he was making 3 movies a year under a strict company Suzuki’s artistic talent grew, and he became a popular filmmaker for the counterculture group of college students rising in Japan. Much to the ire of his bosses who didn’t like being seen as a supporter of the counterculture. They started to give Suzuki harsher limitations and smaller budgets. Under these pressures he made his best work. After Tokyo Drifter Nikatsu forced him to make his movies in black and white. Then a year later after finishing Branded to Kill he was fired.
Branded to Kill was about a hitman with a fetish for sniffing rice. The president of Nikatsu Kyusaku Hori called his films “Incomprehensible,” and then said he should “Open a noodle shop”. Now those counterculture youths of Japan didn’t like their favorite cult director being fired. So a student film society called the “CineClub” organized protest of over 200 fans of Suzuki. The issue ended up going to court, and the trial lasted 2 years. During the case it was found Nikatsu broke the contract and Suzuki was rewarded 7,380,000 yen in damages. Suzuki also received a public apology from Kyusaku Hori. During this time the Nikatsu way of making films caused the company to almost go out of business and lead to them having to make porn.
Sadly though Suzuki was still blacklisted from making films. During this time he made money from directing commercials, and acting. Suzuki did manage to make a couple of films though before stopping for health reasons.
Tokyo Drifter and Seijun Suzki may not be the most well-known pieces of film history, but the influences can be felt today. Film makers like Jim Jarmusch, Takeshi Kitano who directed some of the most recognizable yakuza films, and Quentin Tarantino who openly borrows from Suzuki’s films. Tokyo Drifter may not be the most popular film ever made, but it’s the most popular film in my heart.
Tokyo Drifter is available to rent/purchase on amazon, or you can come over and borrow my copy.