4 out of 5
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
The opening shots of Tokyo Drifter wholly establish the visual and storytelling language you’ll need to continue on: the play-like framing and dialogue delivery; the delirious smash-cut editing; the weaving in and out of tones – it’s a sober yakuza tale, or it’s a surrealist social commentary, or it’s a slapstick comedy – and then director Seijun Suzuki goes ahead and drops a color sequence in there before jumping back to black-and-white and back to color again, just to complete the mind-fuck of what type of film you’re watching.
Continuing this theme, I’m not sure the plot of Tokyo Drifter really matters all that much. How meta you want to get with that is up to you, but there is a delightful read of this movie that has Suzuki using the budget limitations put upon him to reroute tropes into a circle of close-ups and board meetings and mustache twirlings as a way of poking at how you can break down all the “rules” of the genre and still emerge with a flick that makes all of the expected moves: the outed gang member; tested loyalty; dames in distress; etc. However, you can also ignore all of that and just revel in the extreme blocking and dream-like color swaths, and the way characters keep fading in and out, diagetically, singing the theme song; Tokyo Drifter is known for its visuals, and deservedly so.
You also have the utter cool of lead Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), who’s trying his best to ditch his rabble-rousing persona and go straight, as per his boss Kurata’s (Ryūji Kita) wishes; you have the wonderfully goofy Tatsuo (Tamio Kawaji) and Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi) as the rivals, trying to swoop in on the easy-pickings of Kurata; these core cast members are constantly on screen and carrying the scenes, expressive throughout, whether wielding Tetsu’s silence or Otsuka’s villainous plottings, and well matching the flashiness of the colors and breathless edits – edits which often drop entire scenes and move on, either asking us to or not caring if we pick up the pieces.
This last bit necessitated several rewindings on my viewing, trying to pull out details I may have missed. …Details I’m not convinced are there. The way the movie proceeds with such confidence, and pulls off what would normally be large-scale action sequences with a kind of sloppy, minimalist bluster, is entrancing, and you’ll zip through its layers of story without much thought, just inherently understanding who’s good and bad and etc. And I don’t think there’s truly much to it beyond that, with Suzuki surely enjoying that loosey-gooseyness, but also just spicing things up for himself by making every shot something wildly arty or weird, e.g. when there’s suddenly a wild west bar brawl straight out of ZAZ movie or somesuch.
Of course, the flip-side of this is that you don’t necessarily need to watch the whole movie, and could view a supercut of its most expressive scenes, essentially getting the entire effect. There is a split between the brightness of Tokyo and the all-white winter wastes when Tetsu must become the titular drifter to help his boss save face, but this shift is also mainly just a visual one, and isn’t really deeply coded into the movie’s text in a meaningful way.
But the other flip-side – the side on which we were original on, I think – my total runtime with all those rewindings probably tripled the length of the movie, and I didn’t mind one bit.
That entertainment value, and the movie’s fiddling with its reliable genre, make it absolutely noteworthy. And from a modern standpoint, anyone who’s done some time exploring film will undoubtedly catch shots that will make them think of director X, Y, or Z; Tokyo Drifter, whether or not it’s a “deep” movie, has been inspirational to many, and deservedly so.