19th Feb2019

‘Tokyo Drifter’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tetsuya Watari, Ryûji Kita, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Eimei Esumi | Written by Yasunori Kawauchi | Directed by Seijun Suzuki


It would be easy to assume that Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 crime thriller is a construct of a TV series. With its strictly-defined three-act structure, divided by subtitles, it has the feel of a succession of episodes stitched awkwardly together across 90 minutes. But it actually is a cheesy, kind of likeable, complete film.

Tetsuya Watari plays Tetsu “The Phoenix” Hondo, an ex-mobster trying to go straight. He and his avuncular old boss Kurata (Ryûji Kita) live in peace in a building owned by a kindly landlord named Yoshii (Michio Hino). However, Kurata’s old foe, Otsuka (Eimei Esumi) isn’t done with him yet. They force Yoshii to sell the building to them, triggering a fight between the Kurata and Otsuka clans. Tetsu can’t help but get involved.

To save Kurata from further conflict, Tetsu flees the city, becoming the titular drifter. He would like to spend his days wandering through snowy climes, whistling like a cowboy. Alas, various forces are out to ruin his peace. The cops are tracking him; the Kurata gang is on his tail; and wherever he goes he finds himself embroiled in a new gang war. He can’t just walk on by – it seems it’s in Tetsu’s nature to throw himself into the fray. His journey will ultimately bring him back to his beginnings, and a final showdown with an old ally. Can the Phoenix keep rising? You betcha.

Suzuki’s film is fantastically stylised. It opens with a beautifully bleached monochrome sequence in a train yard. A dash of colour on a garment is the only clue as to what’s to come. Entering Tokyo, suddenly the movie is ablaze with neon lights and bold primary colours. Nightclubs are backlit in solid yellows or reds or greens, culminating in a truly avant garde – and distinctly ‘60s – final sequence where the room is of no particular space at all, and all the minimalist furniture is painted black or white and the lighting changes to serve the action.

The ever-inventive production design combines with meticulous framing and cinematography to give the film an almost comic book appearance at times. It certainly serves to distract us from the hammy acting, wayward characterisation and nonsensical plotting. There’s an early moment when the Otsuka gang choose to let Tetsu live rather than easily dispensing with him; and when Otsuka realises he does in fact need Tetsu dead, he simply sends a series of individual agents against him and wonders why they keep getting killed.

The narrative incoherency is deepened further by the bonkers editing. At first it feels exciting – jump cuts designed to challenge our expectations by juxtaposing two unrelated images, like something inspired by the Nouvelle Vague – but it becomes increasingly disruptive. Sometimes we will cut midway through a key scene, often an action scene, to the same character in a completely different location later on.

For example, there is an exciting moment when Tetsu is on a railway line, facing off against a foe on the tracks. A train is coming. Tetsu must shoot his enemy before the train hits him. He fires; the train screams closer… Cut! Suddenly Tetsu is ambling through the snow again. That’s just cheating.

The action itself is reasonably well-handled, if a tad confusing and chaotic. A keynote barroom brawl between the Japanese and stationed American soldiers is pure cartoon slapstick, and all the better for it. This is not a film to court realism. When Tetsu is pinned down in a warehouse, his solution is to run into the middle of the room, roll through the gunfire of a dozen henchmen, and then shoot them all with a pistol. The only visible blood in the entire film is from a shoulder wound suffered by Testu – a wound which is shaken off in seconds, of course. Oh, and someone loses an eye, but if I’m honest it looks more like they’ve been hit by a wad of chewed-up paper.

With its lonesome male archetype and his penchant for song, Tokyo Drifter is a Western in yakuza clothing. This is purely a man’s world – the only female characters are Tetsu’s supposed girlfriend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) who exists to sing the occasional sombre love song and for Tetsu to frown at when she shows an interest; and a secretary who giggles incessantly over comics. There aren’t really any recognisable human relationships to speak of, mostly because of Suzuki’s tendency to cut away for fear of a scene running for more than 90 seconds.

Pre-production (the script) and post-production (the editing), Tokyo Drifter is seriously lacking. But seeing the production itself on the screen is enough to carry us through. Forget the plot. Forget why this man wants to shoot that man. (Tetsu will end up fighting with every male he meets at some point, trust me.) Just enjoy the gloriously bold set design, the barmy action setpieces, the gorgeous cinematography, and the most extreme lighting and colour contrasts outside of cyberpunk. Don’t think, just watch.

Special Edition Features:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Video piece featuring new interviews with director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu
  • Interview with Suzuki from 1997
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Howard Hampton

Tokyo Drifter is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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