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CLASSICS: Tokyo Drifter (1966)

August 29, 2019

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written by: Kouhan Kawauchi (screenplay and story)
produced by: Tetsuro Nakagawa
directed by: Seijun Suzuki
rated: unrated
runtime: 82 min.
release date: April 10, 1966 (Japan), February 23, 1999 (U.S. via The Criterion Collection)

 

Among the most stylish directors in Japan in the 60s was Seijun Suzuki, and his 1966 classic “Tokyo Drifter” is among the most unique and, dare I even use this word, cool movies of the 60s. The framework of the film is relatively simple, a lethal assassin decides to get out of the game, but no matter what he does, he can’t escape the world of crime.

Tetsu the Phoenix (Tesuya Watari) is the best dressed right hand man in the business, doing dirty work better than anyone else. When his boss Kurata (Ryüji Kita) retires, Testu rejects an offer to join a rival gang, and they attempt to take him out. He then goes on the run, becoming a drifter and evading both the law and a hit squad. The film beautifully subverts the glamorous and honorific Yakuza films of the time, showing their dirty deeds as they were, dirty.

 

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After an opening scene shot in deep, dark black and white, the film switches to brilliant color, accented by snowy landscapes, neon-lit city streets, theatrical façades, and even the occasional musical number in a tea house.  Tetsu’s powder blue suit helps him always stand out amongst the many, many people involved in the film’s action sequences, shoot outs, and sword fights.

The film’s production design fits the heavily stylized nature of the storytelling, drenching Suzuki’s masterful compositions in brilliant color. From grey tinged backrooms where men in tailored suits talk business to the unique colors of Tetsu’s wardrobe as he roams the streets at night looking for trouble—or hoping to avoid it at the very least. It fits right in with the color-coordinated design of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” yet it feels distinctly Japanese. That doesn’t stop Tetsu from breaking out in song every now and again, however.

 

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“Tokyo Drifter” is not as well known or well-regarded as the following year’s “Branded to Kill,” but there’s style to spare here. Suzuki makes the most of his color film stock to provide a viewing experience that could nearly be appreciated equally with the subtitles turned off. Suzuki and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine make beautiful use of the widescreen frame and its endless possibilities. Whether through tight framing or proscenium-style full stage pictures, there’s an endless amount of things here to see.

There are some spectacular stylistic flourishes on display here like cutting the sound in and out as Testu makes his way through the back alleys of the nightclub. A paper screen behind a woman who has been shot is tinged with red, before turning fully red moments later when she succumbs. Also, it can’t have been pleasant to walk through the snow in those white leather shoes, but damn does Watari make it look cool as hell.

There are other touches which most certainly must have made the film a thrill for Japanese audiences at the time. The film was thrown in Suzuki’s lap and he turned an otherwise by-the-numbers gangster movie into a pinnacle of the genre. This film is effortlessly cool, trafficking in a style many directors have recreated through much more obvious effort. If you ever want to see a movie that’s truly cool, deep down in its bones, you could do a lot worse than “Tokyo Drifter.”

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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