Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Review #1,490

Director:  Seijun Suzuki
Cast:  Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tamio Kawaji
Plot:  After his gang disbands, a yakuza enforcer looks forward to life outside of organised crime but soon must become a drifter after his old rivals attempt to assassinate him.

Genre:  Crime / Action 
Awards:  -
Runtime:  82 mins
Rating:  PG for some violence
Source:  Nikkatsu

“A drifter needs no woman.”

Put Tokyo Drifter side-by-side with Branded to Kill (1967), and it is easy to see why the latter is regarded as one of Seijun Suzuki’s greatest films.  That’s not to say that Tokyo Drifter is a subpar work, but that it is a slight one, an appetizer to a full-course meal.  

Centering on Tetsuya the Phoenix (played with nonchalant lack of effort by Tetsuya Watari), a loyal Yakuza hitman whose elderly boss has decided to call it quits and go legitimate, the film sees Tetsuya at the crossroads of life: he anticipates a future outside of organised crime with a woman who adores him, but is pulled back into the world of violence when a series of complicating events sees him being targeted for assassination.  

Tetsuya is a drifter.  He must hide, and he must strike.  His special skill: to strike fatally within ten yards with a handgun.  Running at a paltry 82 minutes, it is just as well that Suzuki’s film is short because plot-wise it is as threadbare as anyone could imagine.  There’s no meaningful build-up of tension through narrative and characterisation; instead, Suzuki trades storytelling substance for visual style, and assumes style is substance.  

Tokyo Drifter is no doubt flashy, from its delirious use of colours to its incoherent editing—and because of these, it is also a film that feels out of time.  It may be released in 1966 at the height of the swinging sixties amid an explosion of modern pop art and fashion, but Tokyo Drifter seems like it was made by a group of humans from an alternate reality.

Tetsuya’s light blue suit, for example, is either a fashion taste gone wrong or fashion-less.  Likewise, the cubist-inspired production design feels either pretentious or otherworldly.  In this vein of thought, Suzuki’s film could have been a period piece in its time, or of any time, or it could be a futuristic work with retro elements.  

Its haphazard editing and cinematography, not to mention the corny title song that punctuates the film regularly, allude to a kind of dissociation from reality.  Perhaps it parallels Tetsuya’s frame of mind—he believes in his own self-prophecy, that he is a leading man, only that he must lead himself out of his own delirium.

Verdict:  Suzuki serves up a cocktail of a gangster flick with a threadbare plot, but its sheer delirium will pull you through.





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