johnlink ranks TOKYO NAGAREMONO (TOKYO DRIFTER) (1966)

This is a movie I hadn’t heard of from a director I knew nothing about. Made in Japan in 1966, TOKYO DRIFTER is the story of a loyal yakuza member who attempts to go straight after his gang breaks apart. It sounded intriguing, so I figured I’d give it a run.


I watched TOKYO NAGAREMONO (TOKYO DRIFTER) (1966) on 7.6.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

I won’t pretend I’m smart enough or well-versed enough to discuss the nuance of Japanese crime films of the 1960s. I understand they were somewhat formulaic and that they were churned out with great speed. Apparently director Seijun Suzuki was this sort of director until he decided to shake things up a little bit. TOKYO DRIFTER is a movie with a straightforward plot. Tetsuya Watari plays a henchman named Phoenix Tetsu. He is loyal to a fault, willing to take on the responsibilities of crimes he did not commit to protect the boss even after the yakuza gang he was a part of has disbanded. He refuses to fight when a rival gang assaults him, instead allowing himself to be beaten to prove his new found crime-free persona.

Of course he gets tested one to many times as the film goes on, so he is forced to fight back. The movie, like its titular character, drifts quite a bit. The redemption story we think we are going to get gets derailed forty minutes in as Phoenix is basically exiled from Tokyo to protect the boss. This is all cool until the boss decides he’d rather his former charge be dead. The themes which play out are those of blind loyalty, a slighted underling, the ability to find love in a criminal world, and plenty more off the usual crime-drama checklist.

Suzuki is not interested, however, in making this a normal crime drama. He starts the movie in grainy black-and-white before switching to color for the credits and beyond. He finds influence from the violence of spaghetti westerns, the contemporaneous French New Wave method of non-linear editing and odd cut choices,  the visual dissonance of German Expressionism, and more I’m sure I am just unaware of. I did catch that the end of this film is a fairly close mirror to the Japanese classic from ten years prior, SAMURAI I. But that’s just because I happen to know that film.

There is an emphasis on stark spaces being lit by strange sources, and the symbolism in the images (especially in the climactic scene) are laughably heavy-handed. Not bad, per se, but certainly heavy-handed. The result is an interesting film to watch. Sometimes style for the sake of style can be mistaken for substance when there is none to be found. I don’t think TOKYO DRIFTER falls into that trap, but it is certainly an example of a movie which thinks it is more clever than it really is. This would be a problem if the movie took itself too seriously, but it doesn’t. Despite serious performances, there is an absolute campiness to the proceedings. I’m absolutely positive Tarantino watched this movie before making KILL BILL. A bombastic brawl in TOKYO DRIFTER recalls the famous henchmen massacre in KILL BILL.

There are some huge supporters for this movie out there, and I can see why. It does have a charm to it, an eagerness to it, which makes it immensely likable. While I’m not sure I’m ready to say this is a must-see or a classic, it certainly has planted director Seijun Suzuki firmly on my radar. I’m very curious to see what else he has done, and whether there are more nuanced examples of this sort of movie in his catalog.



The bonus point is for the editing style of this film. While some of the other filmic devices used to create an artistic movie were somewhat obvious or clunky, I did really appreciate the way this movie was cut. It kept you guessing and make the audience necessarily alert.




~ by johnlink00 on July 7, 2013.

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