Surrealism: Japan Style, by Kyle Anderson

In 1966, the Best Picture winner at the Oscars was Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, Sergio Leone turned out the pinnacle of Spaghetti Westerns, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Jean-Luc Godard made the French New Wave love story Masculine and Feminine, and Ingmar Bergman released his haunting, unsettling Persona. Four very different films from four very different filmmakers, and yet their influence, along with a truckload of others, can be felt in another film from the same year: Seijun Suzuki’s surrealist gangster picture Tokyo Drifter. The film is a hodgepodge of genres, filming techniques, and tone, all while utilizing a very straight-forward crime script.
The opening black and white sequence depicts a single man, Tetsu we’ll find out, dressed all in white walking toward camera through a vacant train yard. It’s a very wide shot and his surroundings engulf him. A song played on the trumpet, which we’ll hear a great deal more of, accompanies his walk and immediately evokes thoughts of Ennio Morricone’s scores to countless Italian Westerns. Tetsu is soon confronted by a man in a dark suit who asks him whether it’s true he’s given up his life of crime. Tetsu replies that he has indeed gone straight at the behest of his boss, the aging Kurata. In order to prove this, the dark-suited man drags Tetsu over to a larger group of men in similarly dark suits who proceed to beat the living tar out of Tetsu. Tetsu refuses to fight back, claiming his duty to his boss prevents him from doing so. From a nearby automobile, a man in dark sunglasses, the crime lord Otsuka, tells his lackey that despite Tetsu’s perceived docility, he has seen the man destroy whole hordes of enemies. As he says this, a brilliant, Technicolor flash fills the screen as we see Tetsu indeed demolishing a group of men in full color against a flat black background. Already this film has employed a number of interesting film techniques one might not expect from a mid-60s Japanese crime film.

The rest of the film is no different in that it’s very different. The story continues with Otsuka and his evil henchmen trying to screw over Kurata and kill Tetsu. You see, Tetsu, even when he’s not fighting, is still the most dangerous man in Tokyo. Tetsu also has a girlfriend, the lovely Chiharu, a singer in a local nightclub, whom Otsuka wants for his own. Tetsu eventually must leave Tokyo to keep his surrogate father safe and wanders various parts of Japan trying, usually in vain, to stay out of trouble. He becomes “the drifter from Tokyo,” which he then sings about anytime there’s a quiet moment. Not only does the lead character break into song several times during the film, but the other characters seem also to be able to hear the orchestral swell that accompanies it. The song becomes Tetsu’s calling card. Various times in the film, Tetsu is confronted by a gang member who is sure he’s killed him, but each time Tetsu “The Phoenix” begins singing his signature song before appearing again and beating his rival.

Suzuki employs various jump-cuts during the film, some so jarring it causes one to immediately assume the DVD skipped. It’s almost always used as a joke, though. On one occasion, Tetsu is being pursued by Tatsuzo “The Viper,” and they end up on train tracks. The Viper points his gun at Tetsu while a train barrels toward them from behind the hero. There are numerous cuts to build tension as the train comes ever-closer. Finally, at the last possible moment, Tetsu dives forward, takes out his gun, and fires which is followed by a harsh cut to Tetsu walking calmly away in a completely quiet surrounding. It’s not until later that we see Tatsuzo again, his hand shot up and his face badly scarred. It’s little touches like this that make Tokyo Drifter so engaging and intriguing.

Seijun Suzuki is renowned in the field for his action choreography and it comes to the forefront in this film. There are many fights in the film and no two are filmed or set up the same way. An early fight scene is shot almost entirely in medium-to-wide shots, very static and sterile, while a later fight, a huge brawl in a mod-retro Wild West saloon, is covered using long, panning cranes and zooms. The final battle, in the night club, is one of the most stylized fights ever filmed. In it, Tetsu returns to Tokyo to confront his foes. He is again wearing the all-white suit from the beginning of the film. The main nightclub room is expansive but dark, with only two spotlights. When Tetsu enters, the lights immediately change and stark reds hit various statues while the characters fling themselves behind objects as cover from the gunfire. With each henchmen shot, the light in the club gets ever brighter, until finally, the enormous room is visible and seen to be just as white as the character’s clothes. It’s this kind of surrealism that sets Suzuki among the most innovative and underappreciated directors of the time.

Seijun Suzuki made a host of other surreal crime films in the ‘60s and they are all worth a look, but none is as visually striking or off-the-wall as Tokyo Drifter, which manages to pack all of those styles and genres into only 82 minutes. It’s also pretty clear within the first few minutes of the film that it had a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, for good or ill, and for that alone it deserves to be better remembered. It’s so important in fact that the Criterion Collection has seen fit to release it and a few other Suzuki titles in its esteemed line. So go watch it already, will ya?

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