CAPSULE: TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tetsuya Watari, Tamio Kawaji, Ryuji Kita, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

PLOT: Tetsu tries to quit the yakuza life after his boss goes straight, but a rival gang leader wants the building they own—and Tetsu’s life.

Still from Tokyo Drifter (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a rare case of a movie being screened out by competition from its own maker. Had Seijun Suzuki never made Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter just might stand as the most unusual yakuza picture ever made (at least, until arrived on the scene). But Suzuki took his deconstruction of the genre so much farther the very next year that Tokyo Drifter, while a stunning visual achievement, seems conventional in Branded‘s wake. Unfair to Drifter, which should stand alone on its own strange merits? Perhaps, but these two films, made (almost) back-to-back and leading to Suzuki being blackballed from the Japanese film industry for genre rebellion, will always be linked together in film history—and Branded to Kill will always be remembered as “the weird one.” You are still advised to watch them both.

COMMENTS: A movie so cool they ripped off its title for a Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drifter is an exercise in pure style. Seijun Suzuki, bored with the generic gangster scripts Nikkatsu Studios kept giving him as a B-director, amuses himself with outlandish set pieces while deconstructing the genre before our very eyes. The plot is a standard tale of loyalty and betrayal, merely an outline for Suzuki to hang his experiments on. Scenes are clipped—for example, how does Tetsu appear in the driver’s seat of the kidnappers car, other than by magic? How is his showdown on the train tracks resolved? We never see him actually escape. How does he evade certain death time and time again, with Viper showing up each time to drive him to his next drifting destination? It all makes sense, but only mythologically. Tetsu is a heroic archetype, a chosen one, undefeatable but cursed to wander forever without satisfaction. Suzuki simply chooses to cut out a lot of inessential exposition and get right to the cool stuff. He gives us the elements of the myth without bothering with the logistics.

Whereas the followup film, Branded to Kill, is a record of haunted  characters and obsessive themes, Tokyo Drifter is a thrill ride of stylish moments. The film is suffused with comic book colors and Pop Art sensibilities, and magnificent sets inspired equally by German Expressionism and Surrealism. The prologue mixes black and white with color sequences (and one shot incorporating both color and monochrome). Tetsu is seldom caught without his stylish powder-blue suit, which remains unrumpled no matter how many tussles he gets into. His gun blazes with a bright pink muzzle flash. The soundtrack is cool, Bond-ish spy-jazz, with a “drifter” theme song for Tetsu (performed as a torch song by his chanteuse moll, and whistled by Tetsu to announce his presence). Tetsu’s is a world of alleyways of full of jazz bars advertising their disreputable wares with garish neon signs. In an Old West-themed saloon in a U.S. Navy town, he gets caught up in a brawl that turns into havoc-laced slapstick straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. What you’ll probably remember best are the sets: Kurata’s office, which has Roman frescoes on one wall, and an abstract red and white light sculpture on the opposite wall. Even more impressive is the Club Aires cabaret, where the wild finale happens. It features an Expressionist door mounted atop a staircase and a sculpture of a slender, Dali-esque figure hoisting a giant doughnut above his head. At night it’s a complete black void, except for a spotlight, a glowing white piano, and a glowing red torus. Drifter may not have made bank, but Tokyo Drift wishes it could be a fraction as groovy as its swinging forebear.

The Criterion Collection disc (DVD or Blu-ray) includes two Suzuki interviews and the original Japanese trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…kitted out with plot ellipses, bizarre sets and colour effects, inappropriate songs, absurd irrelevancies (nice hair-drier gags!), action scenes that verge on the abstract, and some visual jokes tottering precariously between slapstick and surrealism.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

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