Tokyo Drifter: surreal pop-art gangster flick riffing on corporate loyalty and surviving in a corrupt world

Seijun Suzuki, “Tokyo Drifter / Tokyo nagaremono” (1966)

A tale of larger-than-life characters grappling with their consciences and their loyalty to their superiors and the life they have known since youth – even if it is a sordid life of gangland killings and unrelenting violence – against a background of surrealism and pop-art excess infused with improvised and experimental filming methods and techniques, all set off with a rebellious attitude: this is the quirky “Tokyo Drifter”. Employed as a hack director by Nikkatsu film studio which expected him to churn out formulaic flicks, Seijun Suzuki set out to snub his bosses by adopting a maximalist style of telling the story of young yakuza Tetsu determined to leave behind his life of beating up and killing people, shaking up bystanders for money and enforcing mob rule among the seedy night-clubs of Tokyo … only to find that his past keeps following him around like a mangy dog. Tetsu’s boss Kurata has just disbanded his gang and Tetsu decides to go straight. Rival boss Otsuka tries to recruit Tetsu but, failing that, sends a hitman after him to stop Tetsu from interfering with a building ownership scam that involves Kurata.

After one shoot-out, Kurata, desirous of benefiting from Otsuka’s scheme, sends Tetsu away and the young man travels by train to Sasebo in Kyushu, but not before Otsuka’s best sniper Viper Tatsu has tried to kill him. Tetsu arrives at a Wild-West saloon club owned by Kurata’s friend Umetani and quickly makes himself at home when a group of drunken sailors try to harass the singer there and mayhem breaks out. Viper Tatsu is killed and Tetsu is warned that Kurata is seeking to kill him. Another ex-gangster, Kenji, tries to befriend Tetsu, warning him that the life of a drifter can be very lonely indeed. Tetsu returns to Tokyo where he takes on Otsuka and his men in a final gun battle. So far Tetsu has led a very charmed life, escaping death in ways unexplained and most improbable, but will he survive the bullet-storm and will he renounce the life of a masterless ronin and claim night-club Chiharu as his bride?

The threadbare and inconsistent plot has more holes than the many rooms where Tetsu and his enemies waste never-ending rounds of bullets. Continuity is often awry and Tetsu himself is blessed with more lives than your average cattery has cats. Characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that parody corporate notions of hierarchy and loyalty in 1960s Japan, then on the ascendant as a country emerging from the ashes of World War II and vaulting its way into First World status with manufacturing ships, cars and other machinery, and claiming the Olympic Games in 1964. For all the service Tetsu has given to Kurata, he ultimately turns out to be a disposable retainer and it’s no wonder that he cuts himself off from all his old ties to the underworld to forge a new life.

The look of the film is stunning: Tokyo is a hyper-idealised city of bright lights and mean streets that promise the fulfillment of dreams but turn out to be cruelly capricious. Many are those who come with stars in their eyes and end up broken and disillusioned. The film sets burst with colour, youthful energy and bubbly zest: the scenes in the night-club, usually bright yellow and white save for those velvety black scenes near the climax just before Tetsu enters, when Otsuka is threatening Chiharu, resemble a beautiful dream-world. Indeed, every scene in the film, whether it takes place in a snowy countryside criss-crossed by railway lines, or on the streets at night, or in traditional wooden houses, seems to have a high-gloss sheen over it: outlines are crisp and clothes, no matter that their styles are 50 or so years old, always look fresh and youthful. Interior sets boast of having been fussed over by the film crew: one nightclub has several friezes of Roman artwork across its walls. Young women parade in bright Sixties fashions, their hair in bouffant style and often impossibly long. The men slouch about in bright suits with sharp tailoring and even Tetsu’s mortal enemy Otsuka looks suave and uber-cool in his bright red suit and black shades.

The music plays a significant role in the plot: Chiharu sings the theme song early on and parts of it are repeated throughout the film – Tetsu whistles it in the saloon scene and sings it while jumping from train to train on his journey to Sasebo. The swanky, sometimes acid-toned music helps to establish the film’s mood and its suggestion that in the modern Japan, the old ways are dying out, notions like loyalty and love count for nothing, and everyone has to reconcile himself or herself to the new culture with its obsession with surface gloss and shallow values. Being and looking cool and hip serve to mask over the alienation people might be feeling in the new Japanese society. The film draws inspiration from the Western genre, celebrated in the saloon fight scene where everyone is engaged in punch-ups, furniture is tossed about, a balcony collapses but no-one actually dies, not even characters shot in the back.

Avant-garde filming techniques are used to emphasise the urban environment – the film makes use of photographic stills to establish mood – and there is plenty of zooming backwards and forwards as the camera follows the action closely. Gunfights are choreographed and Suzuki pays a lot of attention to stylising the action. Artifice becomes a normal part of the film’s universe. The final scene takes inspiration from old German Expressionist films of the 1920s with its angular Gothic set and the shadows cast by the lights in the corridor. Colour is employed for shock and to help shape the film’s ambience and its insouciant attitude.

The film deliberate disregards conventions of genre, plot narrative, characterisation and style, adopting what it wants from different genres for visual effect and fun, and crafts from its eclectic selection a fun and engaging cartoon film noir classic.

 

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