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Our review of Tokyo Drifter: Criterion Collection, published June 12th, 2000, is also available.
"I can't stand a guy with no sense of duty."
It's very difficult to describe Seijun Suzuki's 1966 gangster movie Tokyo Drifter from a story perspective. What it's about doesn't really matter. What matters is how it feels, and how it feels is cool. Imagine one of Jean-Pierre Melville's existentialist crime films directed by Takashi Miike, and you'll begin to have some idea of what to expect. It's a movie that repurposes tropes and elements from so many different sources, and yet is like nothing you've ever seen. It's a Seijun Suzuki movie. Maybe you know what that connotes. If you don't, you should discover for yourself.
Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari, Graveyard of Honor), a former yakuza gangster, is trying to go straight and leave the life of violence behind. Unfortunately, he gets caught in the middle between a rival gang and his boss, Kurata (Ryûji Kita, King Kong Escapes); in the ensuing violence, an innocent woman is killed and Tetsu agrees to accept the blame. Cut off from his boss and the yakuza, Tetsu becomes a "drifter," wandering the city landscape and forced to fend for himself. Eventually, another gang attempts to recruit him, but when Tetsu refuses to join, they decide to kill him, too.
That's the basic plot of the movie, but, again, the plot hardly matters. This is the kind of movie that's much more about the direction than it is about the writing (see this year's Drive for a modern-day example of this phenomenon—which, incidentally, owes something of a visual debt to Tokyo Drifter), and Suzuki is all about a kind of kitchen sink approach to filmmaking. There are songs, scenes in which text splashes across the screen, rear projection effects that call deliberately attention to themselves. It's part spaghetti western, part French new wave. It's a yakuza film, a melodrama, a crime story and, at times, a musical. If you're someone who subscribes to the idea of "postmodernism" (and, to be honest, I'm still not sure where I land), it could be argued that Tokyo Drifter was postmodern before that was even a thing; it combines a number of styles and techniques, presses 'blend' and comes out with something that feels wholly original.
I'm on record as being a fan of Quentin Tarantino—perhaps the most "postmodern" of contemporary filmmakers, to run with a theme—and it's been interesting to use his movies as a jumping off point and expand outward, discovering more and more of his influences the deeper into genre cinema I delve. There's no denying that Tarantino owes a great debt to Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, from its buzzy gangster plot to the violence to its overall vibe of coolness to, most obviously, the movie's music. Suzuki filters the spaghetti western music of Ennio Morricone through a '60s Japanese sensibility, which Tarantino has then repurposed for a few of his movies (Kill Bill chief among them). Tetsu provides the template not just for some of Tarantino's work, but several of John Woo's action films as well; it's difficult not to watch Watari wearing his suits and shooting his guns and being cool and not think of Chow Yun Fat in The Killer and Hard Boiled. Thanks to the Criterion collection, Suzuki's movies will not only stay alive and part of the general movie conversation, but will also begin getting the reputation they deserve for influencing a number of modern filmmakers and their films.
Though it's atypically light on bonus features, Criterion's Blu-ray of Tokyo Drifter is very, very beautiful. The 2.35:1 scope compositions are striking and meticulous, and the way Suzuki transitions from grainy black and white in the opening minutes to some of the most gorgeous Technicolor photography of the decade makes Tokyo Drifter feel practically like The Wizard of Oz. Criterion's transfer of the film replicates all of the eye-popping splendor: bright, bold colors, a decent amount of detail, hardly any signs of aging and nice sheen of grain over the entire image. Simply put, the movie looks incredible on Blu-ray. The only audio option offered is the original mono soundtrack, which gets the job done while remaining faithful to the source. Dialogue is audible (presented in Japanese with English subtitles) and the film's wonderful songs and score are nicely showcased.
The sparseness of supplemental features may disappoint some viewers who are either used to Criterion's usual packed offerings or those who fall in love with Suzuki after watching Tokyo Drifter and wish to delve deeper into the movie and his career. Sadly, the extra material consists mostly of a couple of interviews: a newly-recorded piece with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu and an older (1997) interview with Suzuki solo in which he talks about the film's history and looks over his career in general. Together, the interviews run just over a half hour. The movie's original theatrical trailer has also been included.
So frustrated with Tokyo Drifter were the Japanese studio heads in 1966 that Suzuki was notoriously forced to shoot in only black and white for his next two movies, Branded to Kill and Fighting Elegy (both of which are worth seeing, but neither of which are nearly as good as this one). After that, he was fired, which means Tokyo Drifter marked the beginning of the end for him. Amazing that a film which would ultimately doom his career in '66 feels so alive and ahead of its time today.
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