Tokyo Drifter

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #39: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.


While this is an­oth­er Seijun Suzuki gang­ster film, it is vast­ly dif­fer­ent from Branded to Kill on just about every point. Most no­table is the use of bright swathes of sin­gle col­ors in dif­fer­ent scenes; the same set might be yel­low, then fuch­sia, then white at dif­fer­ent points in the film, and the col­or of­ten changes in re­sponse to ac­tions from the char­ac­ters. The film is less grit­ty and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­pelling than Branded to Kill, with more of a 1960s pop-cul­ture vibe, com­plete with its own mawk­ish pop bal­lad that var­i­ous char­ac­ters sing through­out the film. Despite this much more light­heart­ed tone, there is still sig­nif­i­cant ten­sion sur­round­ing the main character’s role in a com­pli­cat­ed gang war.


This film is a good da­ta point for mak­ing an ar­gu­ment that Yakuza films are just up­dat­ed samu­rai flicks. The main char­ac­ter, Tetsuya, is the equiv­a­lent of a ronin, ex­cept that while he thinks he’s left his gang, he’s still be­ing used by it as a light­ning rod to un­der­mine oth­er gangs in places out­side of Tokyo. This is fair­ly su­per­fi­cial to the main fo­cus of the film, which is Tetsuya’s process of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, but the twain meet in the fi­nal shootout. The film’s ex­cel­lence is due to how stim­u­lat­ing each scene is, due in large part to the afore­men­tioned col­or schema, and fleshed out with the con­stant plot twists, mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes, styl­ized bat­tles and preter­nat­ur­al abil­i­ties of the var­i­ous gun­men in the film.


The com­pli­ca­tions of the plot are re­vealed in snip­pets much like man­ga or an­i­mé, the rapid changes and re­ver­sals are con­fus­ing, but slow­ly con­geal in­to an emo­tion­al tenor that re­flects Tetsuya’s grow­ing cog­nizance and dis­gust with his sta­tus as a pawn of the crime lord he looked to as a fa­ther-fig­ure. It gets a bit con­fus­ing at times, there is an­oth­er as­sas­sin, who looks a bit like Tetsuya, named Tetsuzo [both of them are called Tetsu at var­i­ous times in the sub­ti­tles] which made me think that there was a weird mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ty sub­text go­ing on. This film’s place in the Criterion Collection fits a spe­cif­ic niche of Japanese film­mak­ing that is usu­al­ly over­looked. It is easy to see how Suzuki drove his studio’s bat­shitin­sane, his styl­ized cre­ations are awe­some, but a def­i­nite trend away from the sure-shots that stu­dios usu­al­ly like best.