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TOKYO DRIFTER (Tôkyô nagaremono) (director: Seijun Suzuki; screenwriter: Yasunori Kawauchi; cinematographer: Shigeyoshi Mine; editor: Shinya Inoeu; music: Hajime Kaburagi; cast: Tetsuya Watari (Hondo Tetsuya), Tamio Kawachi (Tatsuzo), Chieko Matsubara (Chiharu), Hideaki Nitani (Aizawa Kenji), Ryuji Kita (Kurata), Hideaki Esumi (Otsuka), Tamio Kawaji (Tatsuzo, The Viper), Eiji Go (Tanaka); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Tetsuro Nakagawa; The Criterion Collection; 1966-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“Filled with flights of outrageous excesses.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Controversial Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, a hired hand at Nikkatsu studio where he made some 40 films, turns out the visually stylish and bizarrely humorous B-movie Tokyo Drifter, but like all his films it lacks narrative clarity. This confusing film always remains entertaining as it is filled with flights of outrageous excesses. The narrative is a routine story about a yakuza gang disbanding and how the film’s hero finds that it’s very difficult to leave the mob and go straight. In other words, this turns out to be just another gang warfare film except for the exceptionally striking visuals and loopy style of filming. Its major theme reflects the struggle of individualism, while its lesser themes cover other conventional genre areas such as loyalty, honor and romance. One of the characters mentions that it’s better being a loner than working for a boss. As some film critics have pointed out there’s a weird sense of pleasure to be gained in Suzuki’s shocking abnormal madcap scenarios that resemble a “masochistic cartoon.”

Everything about the crime drama seemed spontaneous and playfully carried out, but with no room for logic to flourish in this madman’s inspired work. Instead of your typical gangster sets Suzuki’s sets are washed in garish colors that look like they were lifted from a 1950s MGM musical. The film displeased the studio heads, who mainly wanted it to be a vehicle to make the newcomer lead actor Tetsuya Watari into a star. Suzuki made just two more films for Nikkatsu, Fighting Elegy and his masterpiece Branded to Kill, after which the studio fired him for making “incomprehensible” movies. The director sued the studio and won a lawsuit a few years later, but remained blacklisted by Japanese’s studio system. In 1980 he resumed his filmmaker career as an independent and went on to direct five independently financed features, including the acclaimed Zigeunerweisen.

Tetsuya Watari as Tetsu is the number one gun for former crime boss Kurata and remains loyal to his boss despite the gang breakup. The elderly boss wishes to go straight, as he plans to pay off a mortgage for a legitimate office building. Tetsui goes along with the boss and aims to go straight despite an opposing gang roughing him up in an attempt to coerce him into joining their gang. But complications arise over the business deal, and Tetsu has to hit the road. He takes off dressed in a powder blue suit and white shoes, hardly a low-key outfit to disguise him from the hitmen in pursuit. But he lands safely, after a weird showdown on the railroad tracks with a hit man, in the snowy countryside, where he’s protected by another crime boss friend of Kurata’s. Eventually he is betrayed by Kurata and must continue to be a drifter. He does this while warbling his melancholy Tokyo Drifter Theme Song and lives off his rep for living a “charmed life” by coolly avoiding being assassinated. It all leads to a final showdown in Tokyo, where Tetsu in a choreographed ballet-like manner vanquishes his enemies. In the final scene, Tetsu sadly tells his loyal girlfriend club singer Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), that he must live as a drifter and there’s no room for a permanent relationship. That action seemed about as absurd as everything else in the film, but can be viewed as a parody of how many Hollywood Westerns ended.

The film is best suited for a cult audience. Suzuki enthusiasts will probably relish that senseless but uniquely rowdy Western-style saloon brawl midway through the film as a work of pulp art. He’s no Ozu, but he has earned a legitimate place in Japanese cinema as the master of the imaginative B-movie.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”