“I’m going to break up this hell or there’s no future for me!”
What makes Tokyo Drifter such a marvelous film is how Seijun Suzuki takes such a conventional Yakuzza tale and so effortlessly mirrors his own filmmaking career. The struggle Suzuki had to endure from censors and studio executives during this time is what is reflected in this mirror. The film is, like most of Suzuki’s work, defiantly unconventional. The recurring music theme throughout the film is indicative of familiarity within an unconventional structure; it is surreal but memorable. This is a ’60s pop art thriller in the vein of Leone and Melville, yet it is also Suzuki through and through.
Tetsu is a loyal gunman for former crime boss, Kurata. He is devoted to Kurata even though the gang has disbanded. Kurata decides to take out a loan from underworld financier, Yoshii, so he can start a legitimate business. Rival crime boss, Otsuka, intercepts this deal and forces Yoshii to sign Kurata’s deed over to him. Otsuka’s right-hand man, “Viper” Tatsu then kills Yoshii and frames Kurata for it. Tetsu attempts to take responsibility for the murder but Kurata refuses to allow that so Tetsu begins his exile as a drifter. Tetsu meets a fellow drifter, Aizawa, who assists him in his revenge plot, even cornering Tatsu and enacting retribution (assisted by Tatsu himself). Back in Tokyo, Otsuka persuades Kurata (against his better judgment) to order a hit on Tetsu in exchange for peace. Kurata employs an old friend for the task, Utemani, but Aizawa uncovers the plot and allows Tetsu to escape. The final showdown is a violently choreographed ballet (John Woo would be proud) that is minimal yet brutal. Following the violence, the ending is heart-breaking on many levels; the betrayal of a mentor, the fate of the loner. The glamour of the violence that has just occurred is suddenly given a facet of realism where characters must endure the consequences for their actions and must accept the fate they are given.
For Tetsu, his is a charmed life, easily side-stepping assassinations (though receiving a few beatings along the way), and he celebrates his continual fortune by crooning the theme song periodically. Tetsu, despite the multiple attempts to take his life, is well-respected by the criminal classes (he’s even freed from the police by another gang) for his integrity and coolly-capable ability – he is feared, but respected. Tetsu’s girlfriend is nightclub singer, Chiharu, who Tetsu largely ignores throughout the film (except to save her at the end of course). All of this though is only to emphasize the point that a drifter’s life, such as Tetsu’s, is a lonely one; an existence doomed to survive without the comfort of camaraderie. The film ends in a completely white-washed room mirroring Tetsu’s persistent reincarnation and he has embraced this reincarnation by wearing a white suit (everyone else, except for Chiharu, is wearing black).
Technically, the film is flawless. The unique use of colour and lighting is truly breathtaking and the editing style is prophetic to how films are presented today. The film could (and has) been accused of exercising style over substance, but the irony is that the very objective of art is to present substance with style. The objective of B-movies is to relish in the absurdity of excess and Suzuki was a master of both style and absurdity. His symbolic use of colour and expressionism revamps a tired, conventional plot into an iconographic visual experiment.