Tokyo Drifter is a story of Tetsuya, a gangster who has quit after his syndicate disbanded. Another gang boss wants to kill him to make sure he won’t reveal the details of some undercover scam of one type or another, so he starts “drifting.” Truth be told, I was so distracted by the incredible visuals in this film that I didn’t really catch all the details of the plot. But ultimately, the plot is of very little importance – this film is a primarily visual experience, using a vague plot to allow for action-packed stylish fight scenes in minimal yet stunning expressionistic sets. And the main character, like many yakuza (Japanese mafia) heroes, is a bit of a cardboard cutout to some extent, as are most of the characters in the film.
But oddly enough, it makes no difference. Though the plot and script are most certainly B-movie material (laden with such supposed-to-be-profound gems as “I can’t walk with a woman!”), I was quite stunned by the quality of artistry in this film, as well as the good film stock (though it may be a result of the Criterion restoration). The director, Seijun Suzuki, got in huge trouble with his studio, Nikkatsu, when he made too many films that weren’t easily understandable, and utilised his unique expressionistic style (Suzuki was later unable to find work for almost 10 years because he was blacklisted by the studios). The result of these high-art visuals and B-movie sensibilities results in something truly bizarre, yet absolutely stunning. The film isn’t too long, so it’s able to pull this odd combination off quite well.
I’ve begun grabbing a few screenshots to accompany my reviews and to highlight films with otherwise-bland pubicity materials. With Tokyo Drifter, I encountered the unusual problem of having too many screenshots; nearly every shot in this film is outstanding in its use of framing, color, and expressionist set design. Some of the most stylish and visually stunning gunfights I’ve ever seen occur within these gorgeous modernist sets, looking like a mix between Decima Vittima and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:
The opening plays out entirely in high-contrast black-and-white, standing in stark contrast to the rainbow-colored kitsch of modern Tokyo. The opening credits, set over images of 1960s industrial Tokyo, accompany the film’s main song, “Tokyo Nagaremono,” which repeats itself several times in the film, being sung by Tetsuya’s nightclub-singer girlfriend in her club, as well as Tetsuya himself (in a bizarre, musical-like sequence in which he trudges through the snow). Ultimately, I got the feeling that this commercialized, neon, “pop” environment is as empty and present-minded as the characters that inhabit it, the film’s ending (which I won’t give away here), leaving one with a nearly-Antonioni-like ennui of the modern age.
(Above): The hi-contrast opening scene.
(Below): Echoes of German expressionism – violence reflected in the mise-en-scene.
Fans of camp won’t be disappointed. Nor will those who love stylish action films or Tarantino’s Kill Bill (which draws from several Suzuki films). Mod-lovers will appreciate the sets and costumes, as well as the go-go music played in the club beneath one gang’s hideout. Most importantly, this film proves that expressionist cinema didn’t end with Caligari and other German films of the 1920s, and that even B-movies can be entertaining and aesthetically pleasing.
Availability: Criterion Region 1 DVD, VHS (both with English subtitles)
Trailer: The official trailer for this movie was incredibly corny and didn’t show any of the good scenes, so check out this fan-made music video with a new cover version of the movie’s theme song.