Home Video Hovel- Tokyo Drifter
About a year ago now I watched and reviewed Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 surreal yakuza masterpiece, Tokyo Drifter for this very site. I opined about Suzuki’s use of color, camera techniques, and jump cutting and how it proved one could do artful things with the most basic of gangster movie plots. Now here I am reviewing the film again as part of its new Criterion re-release, and it’s like I’ve seen it for the first time. One of Suzuki’s final films for Nikkatsu Studios, Tokyo Drifter is a down and dirty actioner that happens to be rife with surrealism and symbolism, something which the DVD’s supplements inform us got Suzuki in a lot of hot water. However, as is most common, producers fail to see the forest for the trees, and while the film might not have been the straightforward star vehicle for Tetsuya Watari the studio wanted, it stands as one of the best and most accomplished films from a much underrated director.
The story involves yakuza Tetsu (Watari), the chief assassin for the Kurata group. Kurata is giving up the life of crime and expects his underlings to do the same. Tetsu is fervently loyal to his boss and pledges himself to the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, the rival Otsuka group wants Tetsu to join them, and when he refuses, they’re prepared to kill him. Kurata convinces Tetsu to become a wanderer. As he wanders, Tetsu is forced to fight off the seemingly never ending wave of assassins attempting to kill him. All the while, he sings the film’s theme song. I hope you like this song, because you’ll be hearing it a lot. Suzuki shoots the film in such an interesting and different way. A scene of a dance club is shot from under the dance floor, through clear pieces of plastic. The final gun battle is in a completely white room, save for swatches of red light, and lit by spotlights. The opening sequence was shot in overexposed, grainy black and white, until a red toy gun pops up. The imagery is stuff that stays with you long after it’s finished. The film clips along at a very high pace and the action is plentiful. At only 82 minutes, the film manages to pack a great deal of bullets, color, and subtext into its short running time.
The film had already been released on Criterion previously, but in a no-frills, bare bones edition back from the early days of the range. The spine number is 39 for heaven’s sake. While this updated release still leans on the vanilla side, the package as a whole is by far improved. It boasts a new, high definition digital transfer, which, as I alluded to earlier, really feels like you’re watching a different film. The already brash color scheme is now so vibrant it jumps off the screen. The booklet talks about how thousands of instances of dirt and debris were manually removed and the monaural soundtrack was completely digitally remastered from the original print. There’s no two ways about it; this movie looks and sounds fantastic. It also boasts a “new and improved subtitle translation.” Since I didn’t memorize the subtitles from the earlier release, I’ll have to take their word for it.
The extras on the disc are few but memorable. First we have a newly recorded video piece featuring interviews with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu. These interviews are quite illuminating, Kuzuu recalls in awe and reverence the way Suzuki would shoot the way he wanted and would quietly sit while the studio heads yelled at him for it. Suzuki, who is pushing 90, looks quite frail and wears oxygen tubes throughout, yet he nevertheless calmly, almost irreverently speaks about the work he did. It’s clear he’s humble yet proud about the films he made for Nikkatsu and finds it funny both that no one else seemed to like them at the time, and that they’ve now found an audience. They also discussed that while he never changed a word of dialogue, Suzuki-san would routinely restage all the action and find ways, such as the glass dance floor sequence, to infuse something interesting into the rather mundane scripts.
Another small piece was featured on the initial DVD release and is a small interview the director did for a Nuart Theater retrospective in 1997. Suzuki, much younger and more able-bodied, talks more generally about his career, how he made 40+ films for Nikkatsu before he was unceremoniously fired after production of his masterwork, Branded to Kill in 1967. Both this and the other interview shed a great deal of light on the director, whom I knew little about besides seeing a few films. Nikkatsu really was a cheap-and-quick movie company, with shooting schedules for each movie only 20-35 days, and Suzuki was a troublemaking B-movie maker. As the narrator says in the 1997 clip, his final 13 Nikkatsu films are among the most interesting, artful films to come out of Japan at the time and he did that despite having no time, no money, and no studio support. It’s astonishing.
Rounding out the DVD is a theatrical trailer and booklet essay entitled “Catch My Drift” by Howard Hampton discussing the film’s finer points. If I had a complaint about the release it’s that it sorely lacks a commentary track, preferably from a film scholar, to accompany the film. Criterion has a record of including excellent, analytical commentaries on many of its releases and I was disappointed that one wasn’t recorded for the updated release. I also wouldn’t mind seeing some kind of documentary or featurette about the director and his work for Nikkatsu. It may exist and be on another Criterion release, but I haven’t seen it if it does. Basically, I wish there had been more, but what is here is fantastic.
Tokyo Drifter is truly an interesting and compelling piece of mid-60s Japanese exploitation. It’s both exciting and somber, vibrant and bleak. It’s Russ Meyer and Sam Fuller with a Japanese sensibility. Its lead was a pop star who couldn’t remember his lines yet somehow turns in a brilliantly nuanced performance. All of this can be attributed to Seijun Suzuki, a director who did exactly what he wanted to do with what he had to work with. Pick up the Criterion release and experience the delightful weirdness of a true pulp classic.