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.