Review by Timothy Sun
Posted on 20 February 2008
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Features Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy
Reviews Branded to Kill
Reviews Youth of the Beast
Reviews Fighting Elegy
I happened to watch Tokyo Drifter just as the Japan Society in New York City was running a monthly film series called “Nikkatsu Action,” referring to Nikkatsu studios, where Seijun Suzuki churned out forty-two films in twelve years. The series focused on Suzuki’s less famous (in the west) 1960’s peers, fellow studio workhorses who, as the curator of the series, Mark Schilling, contends, filtered Hollywood genre films and their French New Wave reinventions through a distinctly post-war Japanese prism to create jazzy, free-form gangster films all their own. Speaking of the appeal of the Nikkatsu Action films, Schilling argues:
Many of these films, especially the early ones, were aspirational, embodying the dreams of a generation. Unlike the heroes of Hollywood films—who were like fantasy figures to the Japanese, Yujiro Ishihara, Ruriko Asaoka and other Nikkatsu stars represented all that the audience hoped to become.
It is indicative of Suzuki’s maverick status, then, that Tokyo Drifter, rather than bringing the fantastical heroes of Hollywood films down to a recognizably – much less aspirational- Japanese milieu, hurtles headlong in the opposite direction, taking the blueprint of Hollywood fantasies and spiking them with a cocktail of surreal formalism that places the characters, the settings and the film itself in a purely cinematic world. I find it difficult to believe, as Schilling would have it, that a Japanese audience would see a film like Tokyo Drifter as anything but Hollywood fantasy magnified, perhaps all the more discomfortingly so because it was now Japanese faces inserted into the American Dream Machine.
After seeing the film, I was struck by the weird sensation that, had Suzuki been an American B-moviemaker along the lines of Sam Fuller or Russ Meyer, Tokyo Drifter would probably be the exact same movie, only a white actor would play Tetsu. I do not mean to deny Suzuki’s heritage, but I do not find much of it evidenced in Tokyo Drifter—there’s really nothing intrinsically Japanese at all. Suzuki’s approach is a boldly individualistic one that transcends geography, even nationality, in its abstract riffing on a generic theme. Its focus is on fulfilling the conceptual stipulations of genre, of cinematic worlds rather than real ones. Given the film’s absurdly stock performances, were Suzuki to have made the film in America, replacing the Japanese cast with a white one would have resulted in no net change. In Suzuki’s postmodern vision, switching out an actor would amount to nothing more than replacing one signifier with another, the original signified still the generic “type” stipulated by and replicated hundreds of times over by the American genre film. Like his French contemporary, Jean-Pierre Melville, Suzuki distilled the American gangster film to its core essence, fetishistically stylizing a world where only cops, criminals and other generic signifiers exist: guns, bars, suits, dames. But whereas Melville turned the genre inward, imbuing his films with a controlled, minimalist angst, Suzuki explodes the genre outward, replacing psychological interiority with a brashly colorful mise-en-scene, crazy camera angles and roughly edited action. Suzuki pushes the fantasy created by Hollywood even further into its own fantasy world, heightening the fantastical elements of the original until nothing is left but the fantasy. This is in opposition to the French New Wave crime films, in which Godard and company appropriated the American genre in order to deconstruct it, to expose its movie-ness and make the viewer aware of the generic ticks that they had taken for granted. Often, as in the case of Breathless, the generic payoffs that the viewer is expecting are purposely withheld or only half-consummated: the initial murder, for instance, is edited for brevity rather than suspense; the bulk of the film is two people talking, not additional heists or police standoffs. Tokyo Drifter, on the other hand, shows nothing but payoffs (often with barely a setup)—its appropriation of genre is not deconstructive but all-embracing, a sort of exultation of genre. Suzuki’s unique vision, then, is the ultimate simulacra, a sort of Platonic extension of the American genre, concerned far more with style than content, absent of any marker of historicity or place, beholden only to the strictures of cinema. It is, in this sense, pure form.
And what form! From its opening prologue, the film establishes its intent to deliver the goods better, faster and cockier than its American inspirations. A sort of anti-Ozu, Suzuki makes the old accusations leveled at Kurosawa for being “too American” seem quaint. The opening sequence seems almost bored with itself for its expository function, shot in a grimy, high contrast black and white that renders the actors’ faces empty black masses. The film immediately reduces the actors – and therefore the characters – to figures that function solely as part of the movie’s formal system: we know there is a villain, a hero and cats that look cool in tight suits and skinny ties. The sequence unexpectedly springs to life, however, in an abstract burst of color, cutting away to a shot of the recently gone-straight hero, Tetsu, plugging what seems like a dozen anonymous gangsters with acrobatic twirls of his pistol. Later, as if to literally highlight the genre’s fetishization of the gun, the only object shown in color in an otherwise black and white frame is Tetsu’s smashed pistol. From here on, the tone is set and the relentless stylization escalates in outrageousness. Like cartoons, only even more two-dimensional, the characters never change clothes unless it is to match whatever lighting scheme or set design Suzuki has cooked up: Tetsu is clad in his powder blue suit while in pastel-hued Tokyo but suddenly appears in a brown suit while at a western saloon, matching the earth tones of the set and making explicit his cowboy persona. Wide frames and long lenses emphasize flatness, capturing the characters as components of the mise-en-scene, rather than as agents acting within it. In one particularly eye-popping shot, Tetsu and a bad guy are framed on either side of the screen, with Tetsu’s back to the other. Just as the bad guy’s about to open fire, Tetsu spins around and shoots him with lightning speed; just as fast, the red backlight switches to white. Why? Why not? Cut to a close-up of Tetsu with a badass grin, as if to say to the audience, “Yeah, I know that was awesome.”
There are the requisite betrayals, reversals and psychological epiphanies, all treated with the breeziest indifference by Suzuki—we already know what to expect so Suzuki barely bothers to hit the plot points, much less develop a story. What matters here is the visceral impact of form, of the visual and aural arrangement of cinematic language. But despite the stylistic virtuosity on display, the film often buckles under the weight of its generic excess. The editing is at times indecipherable, with shots that do not even cut together. Part of this may be due to the fact that, with the standard 28 days to plan, shoot, edit and mix a B-picture for Nikkatsu, Suzuki simply didn’t have time to shoot what he needed. The bigger point, though, is that Suzuki doesn’t seem to care; he is focused solely on moving the film forward, from one set piece to another. One moment, Tetsu is in the middle of a nighttime shootout with what must be the entire criminal population of “Northern Japan,” the next, its daytime and he’s wandering around in the snow; the next, he’s in a face-off with an assassin on train tracks; and so on. It would be easy to call certain portions of the film downright inept if it weren’t for the undeniable skill and brazen originality on display everywhere else. In spite of its imperfections, the overall effect of the film is like a sugar rush, an amalgamation of every gangster film you’ve ever seen with all the boring parts cut out and the remainder whirled together in a cotton candy machine.1
If there is any sort of meaning to be gained from the film beyond its delirious exterior, it’s necessary to acknowledge the film’s other generic forebear. To view Tokyo Drifter as just an especially rambunctious yakuza riff on the American gangster film is to deny half of its genealogy—the film is as much a western as it is a gangster film. The singular dramatic tension of the film, hidden behind layers of florid sets and blazing pistols, is the crisscross between the impulses of its two parent genres: the gangster film’s mythologizing of a subculture defined by collective honor and the western’s sad-eyed celebration of individualism. The soundtrack to the film lays bare these perpendicular influences: the cool, jazzy score of the gangster film intermingles freely with the faux-Morricone of the western. The title of the film itself calls to mind countless westerns about the lone gunman who saves the society he cannot join. Tetsu, like a tumbleweed, drifts through Japan’s mountain frontier, ending up at the aforementioned western saloon and mixing it up in a full-on barroom brawl right out of an American studio western. Along the way, his persona changes from that of a gangster to that of a cowboy—a loner who, having blown away the outlaws, cannot stay to reap the rewards (that is, his girl); he can only drift and take refuge in his individualism. The film treats this theme too blithely for a viewer to actually care, but it gains resonance when applied to Suzuki himself. Long frustrated with his wild aesthetic, Nikkatsu made it plain that Suzuki was to play it straight for Tokyo Drifter—an order he clearly did not follow. Two films later, Suzuki was fired and blacklisted from making movies for ten years until he was reborn as an independent filmmaker. Taken in this context, Tokyo Drifter ‘s emphasis on style over substance is the substance. When Suzuki cuts to that knowing close-up of Tetsu after he’s shot the bad guy and the whole lighting scheme changes, he no doubt shares Tetsu’s grin. Suzuki’s outlandish excess was his middle finger to the studio, the equivalent of gunning down your crime boss and riding off into the sunset. Perhaps form did follow function after all.
1 The only thing missing from this formula is sex. Tetsu is a curiously limp character, so to speak. Beyond his loyalty—his filial love—for his boss, he exhibits no emotion whatsoever. He has a nominal girlfriend, the virginal good girl (in opposition to the treacherous femme fatale), who sings and looks worried, just another signifier thrown into the mix. The genre mandates that Tetsu love her, but their relationship is actually more interesting than it seems. She is the active partner, pining after a recalcitrant Tetsu who refuses to follow her upstairs. “I’m off women,” he says at one point. Whatever the sexual mores of 1960’s Japan, this line strikes me as going beyond heroic prudence and into more subversive territory. ↩