Sunday, February 6, 2022

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Seijun Suzuki had a lucrative career going making inexpensive crime thrillers for Nikkatsu but his movies gradually became weirder and more stylistically extravagant. Things came to a head with Branded To Kill in 1967 but you can already see signs of his desire to break away from the standard crime movie formula in Tokyo Drifter in 1966.

Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is a heavy for a yakuza gang but when his boss Kurata decides to go straight and disband the gang Tetsu decides to go straight as well.

It’s not going to be so easy. Otsuka, a rival yakuza from Karuta’s past, wants to take over Kurata’s legitimate businesses. If it’s going to be difficult for Kurata to go straight then it will be just as hard for Tetsu. His loyalty to Kurata is absolute.

Otsuka comes up with an elaborate plan to force Kurata’s hand. During the execution of the plan there are two murders, and either Kurata or Tetsu might be manoeuvred into taking the rap for one or both murders.

Tetsu decides it would be better for everyone if he wasn’t around any more. So he leaves and becomes a drifter. Like the Tokyo Drifter in the song that his girlfriend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) sings.

Of course his yakuza past keeps catching up with him, and Otsuka is still out to get him. A killer named Tatsu the Viper is stalking him.

In the course of these adventures and misadventures he encounters Kenji (Hideaki Nitani). Kenji saves Tetsu’s life. Kenji is also a drifter. A yakuza who becomes a drifter is a bit like a masterless samurai. He no longer has a sense of belonging. There is however a difference between the two men. Kenji had been Otsuka’s man but has abandoned his loyalty to his old yakuza boss. This deeply upsets Tetsu. Tetsu would never give up his loyalty to Karuta. A yakuza just doesn’t do such things. So two men who should become friends become at best uneasy allies.

Otsuka goes on plotting and eventually there must of course be a showdown.

We have to confront the question of genre. A lot of the Japanese crime movies made from the late 40s to the mid 60s get labelled as film noir and many do indeed have strong affinities to film noir. That’s especially true of Nikkatsu’s late 50s/early 60s offerings and several of Seijun Suzuki’s movies are often described as film noir. It’s obvious that Suzuki was heavily influenced by American crime movies of the 40s. The basic plot outline of Tokyo Drifter could come from a 40s American crime thriller. It does however have quite a few distinctively Japanese features. This is very much a movie about loyalty and betrayal, but it’s loyalty in a sense that owes more to the code of the samurai than to anything that you’d find in an American gangster movie. Tetsu is not Karuta’s loyal employee. They have a kind of father-son relationship but also the kind of relationship that would have existed between a samurai and his lord.

Stylistically this is a movie with its own unique flavour. It’s shot in colour, and vibrant colour. There’s a lot of film noir atmosphere but there’s a very strong 1960s vibe. In fact there’s a blending of 40s and 60s style. The nightclub in which Chiharu sings looks very 1960s but she doesn’t sing pop songs. She sings the kinds of songs that a chanteuse in a 1940s Hollywood movie would sing.

I thought initially that Tetsuya Watari was a bit too young to play Tetsu. I’d have been inclined to go for an actor who looked a bit more world-weary. He was forced on Suzuki by the studio and was apparently quite a problem, being too nervous and inexperienced to remember his lines. In a normal movie his performance might have been a disaster but in this movie his non-acting acting works. In a Suzuki movie clothes make the man. Literally. Suzuki thought the key to characterisation was to choose the right costume for the character. If the costume was right nothing else really mattered.

There are also touches of the surrealism that was a Suzuki trademark. This is not the real world. This is not Tokyo in 1966. This is a world created by Seijun Suzuki. The rules are different. It’s a totally artificial world that doesn’t even try to resemble the real world.

There’s a wonderful scene set in a western saloon (it’s a bar in Tokyo in the style of a wild West saloon), with an all-in brawl just like in a western. It’s played for comedic effect, it’s totally crazy and it comes out of nowhere but it works.

When you watch the two interviews with the director included on the Criterion DVD you start to get a handle on what it is that makes Tokyo Drifter so appealing. Suzuki wasn’t trying to be arty. He had no artistic pretensions at all. He was simply trying to be non-boring and fun. He hated the idea of shooting any scene in a conventional way. It was much more fun to do it in a totally unconventional and original idea. The movie looks like it was made as an art film, in a very Pop Art way, but this was entirely accidental. It was simply a product of Suzuki’s determination to keep trying something different. This is a kind of naïve art. Unlike too many self-consciously arty films it is never boring. You never know what Suzuki will throw at you next.

There are so many excellent visual set-pieces. The climactic shoot-out is the wildest most outrageous shoot-out you’ve ever seen.

Suzuki didn’t agonise too much over continuity. The important thing was to avoid being boring. He was much more interested in the production design than in the plot. And the production design in this case is stunning and outlandish.

Predictably Nikkatsu hated the movie. After two more films they fired him. Branded To Kill, usually regarded as his masterpiece, was the last straw for Nikkatsu.

Tokyo Drifter is a wild ride but I can promise you that while you might be mystified you will not be bored. Very highly recommended.

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