Criterion Project #1: TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)

Film: Tokyo Drifter

Year: 1966

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Well this project is kicking off with a literal bang! The lucky winner of the grand randomization is the slick, Japanese New Wave gem, Tokyo Drifter.

This was a pleasing experience to kick things off.

I remember watching Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter back around the time I started getting into foreign and arthouse film, when all you needed was a Netflix DVD subscription and the willingness to read subtitles. This was the first film of Suzuki’s I came across and, to be honest, I don’t remember if I actually liked it or just thought it was super cool. I certainly remember the yakuza element and the splashy colors, but the gist of the story had been wiped from my memory. Again I saw this very early in my film studies, around the time I was enraptured by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Seeing Tokyo Drifter in the wake of masterpieces such as Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, and Rashomon wasn’t necessarily a mistake, it just wasn’t the right time. This isn’t taking anything away from Suzuki in reference to those other master filmmakers, in fact I think Suzuki certainly has a place within a conversation of the great directors.

And I do think this film is a masterpiece. The second-viewing proved exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with this project. I watched a film that impressed me enough to purchase the film a long time ago but never revisited it until now, and thank God I did.

In short, we get a slick gangster film that matches muzzle-flashes with explosive color and style.

The story concerns a former yakuza member, Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) and his master, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), as they try to go legit in the face of looming debt and backstabbing rival gangs who smell blood in the water. Business transactions fall through, threats are made, double-crossers do what they do best, and suddenly Tetsu is on his way out of Tokyo with a bullseye on his back.

There’s not much in the plot we haven’t seen in gangster films before, but this junction is when the film really takes off and plays to my interests, effectively crossing genres and folding in a healthy dose of samurai/Western motifs. Testsu’s estrangement from the city renders him the classic nomadic gunmen with a bounty on his head, only he’s a man who adheres to bushido loyalty. We also get a terrific theme song for Tetsu to menacingly sing or whistle, not unlike “Harmonica” in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, two years after Tokyo Drifter) or the angelically ominous voice of Robert Mitchum echoing in The Night of the Hunter (1955). And that’s before we consider the foreboding horns in the score mythicizing Tetsu’s character (not unlike a samurai/western film) while alerting us to the ever-present danger. Add in some rival gunslingers, anti-heroes, more double-crosses, blasts of fluorescent color, gobs of bullet casings, and a capable hero with a code of ethics and you’ve got a neon explosion of mixed cultures and genres working together harmoniously to make a uniquely new thing.

The craziest part of the film is that it works. Honestly, I feel like I could watch that film again right now. It’s been a minimum of 10 years since the first time I watched it and that will not be happening again. My attention came back to Suzuki recently after watching Branded to Kill, which is another film about a capable killer on the run, except Suzuki utilizes more noir elements in that film (it’s also shot black & white). But my enjoyment of that film made me want to revisit Tokyo Drifter and give it a proper reassessment, so I was pleased when it appeared at the top of my list for this project.

My only question about this film is: why didn’t we get ten Tokyo Drifter sequels focusing on the nomadic Testsu the Phoenix? We got The Man with No Name, Sartana, Django, etc. Tetsu would have fit perfectly in that bunch. A missed opportunity from a fantastic film.

Stay tuned next Friday for film #2 in the grand Criterion Project!

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