Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Tetsu, the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, is a gangster trying to go straight, Oddly enough, his boss is also trying to go straight. Mr Kurata is tired of being a yakuza boss, and now he just wants to run a legitimate business with his faithful assistant Tetsu. Rival yakuza boss Otsuka is unfortunately determined to settle scores with Kurata, and the fact that Kurata had to borrow money to set up his nightclub business gives him his chance. He intimidates the money lender who financed Kurata, and gains control of the building housing Mr Kurata’s new venture. It seems that, despite their best efforts, Kurata and Tetsu will be dragged back into the shady and violent world of the yakuza.

It’s a very film noir kind of plot, with lots of treachery and conflicts of loyalty. Tetsu’s girlfriend Chiharu, a singer at Kurata’s nautically themed Porthole Lounge, is also drawn into the conflict. A complex series of kidnappings and murders and double-crosses ensues. Tokyo becomes too hot for Tetsu, who has been implicated in a murder he did not commit, and he becomes a “drifter” - a kind of wandering freelance yakuza. He remains fiercely loyal to Mr Kurata through all this, convinced that his loyalty will never be betrayed. The web of loyalty and obligation binding Tetsu becomes more complicated when his life is saved by another drifter, a man he had always regarded as an enemy. Several plot twists later, there’s a spectacular climax in the nightclub in which the various strands of the plot are brought together and resolved with extraordinary flair and cinematic showmanship.

While the plot is very film noir, the style is very different. It’s paced like an out-of-control roller-coaster ride. The colours are dazzling, there are some great Swinging 60s sets and night-club scenes. Everything looks bright and exciting. It’s like film noir on crystal meth, done in comic book style. There’s no attempt to pretend this is realism. Fight scenes and gun battles are exquisitely and intricately choreographed, and they’re all utterly impossible, but the movie has a tongue-in-cheek feel to it so it doesn’t matter. To complain about the unrealistic elements is to miss the point; it’s like complaining that a 60s James Bond movie isn’t realistic. Tetsu repeatedly makes miraculous escapes from impossible situations. He’s like a comic book hero.

The visuals are overwhelming. Seijun Suzuki’s flair for composition is stunning, and he’s one of those rare directors who can almost make the widescreen format seem worthwhile. Every shot is interesting. Nobody simply walks through a door. Everyone makes spectacular entrances. The world of this movie is like a gigantic stage set, but despite this very theatrical feel he is the most cinematic of film-makers and the movie most emphatically does not have a stagey feel to it. It’s more like a manga than a play.

Despite the bravura style of the visuals, the story itself is not overwhelmed by this extravagance, and despite the fantastic elements the moral and emotional dilemmas are real and they are moving. This is one of the most intoxicatingly stylish movies I’ve ever seen, made with a technical mastery that is truly awe-inspiring.

The Region 4 DVD release doesn’t have much in the way of extras, but there are no complaints about the quality of the transfer. An absolutely terrific movie.

1 comment:

Samuel Wilson said...

I was impressed by this one too when I saw it on a Criterion DVD. I was lucky enough to find both Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill at a second-hand book store, obviously left there by someone who was turned off by Seijun Suzuki's style. While most critics seem to regard Branded to Kill as his masterpiece, I actually liked Tokyo Drifter better, but both are definitely worth a look.