Tokyo Drifter

1992 Vancouver
1994 Wellington
1995 Tokyo
2005 Thessaloniki

Tokyo Drifter poster

In this jazzy gangster film, reformed killer Tetsu’s attempt to go straight is thwarted when his former cohorts call him back to Tokyo to help battle a rival gang. Director Seijun Suzuki’s onslaught of stylized violence and trippy colors is equal parts Russ Meyer, Samuel Fuller, and Nagisa Oshima – an anything-goes, in-your-face rampage. Tokyo Drifter is a delirious highlight of the brilliantly excessive Japanese cinema of the sixties.
– Janus Films.

Seiiun Suzuki’s absurdist thriller, certainly one of the most brilliant genre movies ever made, really needs to be seen in context to be enjoyed to the max. Suzuki was contracted to Nikkatsu in 1954, and he directed 40 movies for the faltering major between 1958 and his peremptory dismissal in 1967; all of them were assignments, and most were intended for release as B-features in double bills. Suzuki ploughed this furrow with mounting boredom and dissatisfaction until 1963, when his encounters with kindred spirits such as the production designer Takeo Kimura and the cinematographers Kazue Nagatsuka and Shigeyoshi Mine led him to strike out in his own direction. Given formula material that often had only the most tenuous links with ‘reality’ in the first place, he began pushing his films into a register of bold, theatrical artifice, experimenting with colour, light and space while paring down plot structures to their naked essentials.

As a result, his last 13 films for Nikkatsu amount to a body of work unique in Japanese cinema and phenomenal by any standards. The smarter Japanese critics and the student audience loved these films from the moment they were released; it’s a minor scandal of cinema history that it has taken so long for them to win recognition outside Japan.

Around half the films Suzuki made for Nikkatsu between 1963 and 1967 were yakuza thrillers (the others were off-beat literary adaptations), and Tokyo Drifter was the last but one. Unlike the subsequent Branded to Kill, it more or less respects generic conventions: the callow hero, his predicament, his intoning of a mournful ballad over the credits and his scarred survival of a series of double-crosses are all genre staples, as is the background story of the shift from gang warfare to outwardly respectable big business. Without parodying or subverting this material, Suzuki gives it an edge of consistent absurdity by pushing much of the iconography and many of the motifs to a hyperbolic extreme. Hence the way that the hero Tetsuya opens and closes the film in a stain-resistant white suit and is seen in between in an incongruous sky-blue suit and white loafers; and the way that the chief heavy Otsuka cannot enter a scene without the camera (suddenly handheld) lurching in for a tight close-up of his wrap-around shades; and the way that Tetsuya at one point sings the theme-song on-screen to announce his presence and at another whistles it to taunt his adversary. Examples are, in fact, legion, and they achieve the improbable effect of making the film wildly funny without for a moment preventing it from delivering its generic punches.

Suzuki’s own rationale for the hyperbolic imagery and incidents is that they were his way of adding interest to essentially banal material. Ultimately, though, his play with the film’s formal and plastic elements goes beyond freshening up a tired genre. Tokyo Drifter anthologises a number of startling visual coups that Suzuki and his collaborators had introduced into earlier films, from Youth of the Beast (Yaju no Seishun, 1963) to One Generation of Tattoos (Irezumi Ichidai, 1965), but their profusion here lifts the movie into a realm of lyricism that approaches delirium. The process begins in the monochrome pre-credits sequence showing Tetsuya submitting to a beating in a dockside rail yard. The entire sequence is printed on high-contrast stock and tinted olive-green; at its climax, before he warns the departing thugs not to make him angry, the bloodied hero looks down and sees a broken toy gun on the ground – and the toy is bright orange. A few scenes later, Suzuki is trumping those clashing colour-values by setting a shoot-out against a blood-red backdrop – which instantly bleaches white at the moment that Mutsuko is shot. And then there are the shots from above and below the action, not to mention the scenes in the Alulu Club, where the light changes from red to white to yellow according to the emotional temperature of the scene.

This degree of flagrant and rapturous artifice is in perfect synch with the way that Suzuki ruthlessly pares away conventional bridging scenes from the plot, propelling the film from one outre scene to the next. An early scene in which Tetsuya shakes up some hoods by taking them for a hair-raising drive is reduced to a series of disconnected shots of dangerous driving: the meaning without the boredom of pedantic continuity.

Two interpolated fight scenes (the clash between two factions of Niigata bumpkins who fancy themselves as latterday samurai, and the brawl that demolishes the Saloon Western) are comic set-pieces that have nothing to do with the plot but everything to contribute to the tone of disrespect. And each of “Viper” Tatsu’s duels with Tetsuya is more oblique and unresolved than the one before.

What is finally so remarkable about Suzuki’s film is that it attains this level of abstraction, colour expressionism and spatial and narrative disorientation without losing touch with its own identity as a B-feature thriller. It’s as if Powell and Pressburger and Jean-Luc Godard had collaborated on a Joseph H. Lewis movie. Amazing that an unsung genre movie made nearly 30 years ago in Japan still has such freshness and vitality, and that it still radiates such a strong sense of the cinemas latent possibilities.
– Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound, April 1994.

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer. This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm low-contrast print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image System’s DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

The film looks beautiful, boasting colors that will inspire a lot of people to begin researching Suzuki’s early films. The contrasty and oversaturated black and white prologue looks exactly as it should. The rest of the film also looks very strong. When projected the image conveys substantial depth and very pleasing fluidity, while overall contrast levels, as wild as they may seem at times, are well balanced. What impresses the most, however, is the excellent color-scheme. The ambient reds, yellows, blues, and greens look fantastic. Detail is also dramatic, especially during close-ups, where various textures are extremely easy to see. Some noise corrections have been performed, but film grain is very much intact and quite easy to see. Finally, the newly restored high-definition transfer is free of large cuts, damage marks, stains and warps.

The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation. It has decent depth and fluidity. Shigeyoshi Mine’s unique score, in particular, gets a nice boost. The dialog is also stable and crisp. Occasionally, however, some extremely light hiss sneaks in. It is never distracting but its presence is felt. For the record, there are no sync issues, pops, or audio dropouts to report. The English translation is very good.
– based on Dr Svet Atanasov,, November 25, 2011.

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