Tokyo Drifter

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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