Some humans are destined to be great wherever they are placed, whenever be the time and whatsoever the conflicting forces at play are; Seijun Suzuki (originally Seitaro Suzuki) is such a man. He is destined to rise above the mass. He primarily made B-movies for Japanese production house Nikkatsu; after suing the company for illegal termination of contract he was blacklisted for about ten years, but still came back and gifted the Taisho Trilogy. Amidst all the hardships of being a B-movie director he made marvelous films which present us a glimpse of his creativity.
His 1966 film, Tokyo Drifter begins with a black and white scene of the main character being beaten by a group of men belonging to a rival yakuza group. It is shot in stark black and white with much of the background is indistinguishable. The nakedly differing black and white strikes both the eye and the mind. Is it representing something? Maybe it represents Kurata (Ryuji Kita) and Tetsu’s (Tetsuya Watari) attempt to become legit. After Tetsu’s thrashing, the shots of the dockyard, the street and the tracks devoid of humans and noise is beautiful. It shows that in the new life he is trying to adapt, there is no place for violence. The previous dream-like shot, probably showcasing his mind, when he is beaten shows contrasting behavior: he shoots and kills the men. This is an essential conflict in the first part of the film: whether to fight back or not.
As the opening credits appear on the screen the film changes to colour and we are presented with a montage of Tokyo, especially different pace of the city: its trains, cars, ferries, and people walking slowly. Accompanying the sequence is the beautiful song Tokyo Nagaremono (meaning tramp) which reverberates throughout the film in the lips of Tetsu “Phoenix”. It is a delightful soundtrack whose repeated playing adds to the aura of the film and the personality of Tetsu. The rival yakuza group of Otsuka (Eimei Esumi) creates problems for Kurata; but is somewhat unsuccessful due to Tetsu’s presence on Kurata’s side. When they force a money lender to Kurata to sell them his building for a little amount of money and kill him, Tetsu manages to save Kurata by rescuing him in time. He also rescues Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), a girl who sings in Kurata’s bar and is in deep unreciprocated love with him, from being kidnapped. This escapade makes them try to assassinate him; he is again able to save himself by his heroics.
For the first thirty or more minutes the face of Otsuka is never shown; it is either a long shot or an extreme close-up of his dark sunglasses reminding Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Suzuki wants to make us distant from Otsuka by these long shots and when he shows his dark sunglasses covering his eyes, we are reminded that he is a tough nut, devoid of emotions, wanting harm to our hero. Tetsu overhears a man telling his boss that by handing over Tetsu to the rivals the matter can be settled, but Kurata is clear in his intentions of keeping Tetsu. He himself proposes to go out of Tokyo till the heat is cooled; Kurata agrees reluctantly agrees to this and gives Tetsu a letter of introduction for Shimada. Before leaving Tokyo he calls Chiharu, but hangs up without speaking a single word after listening to her voice. For displaying his journey, Suzuki uses a beautiful shot of a train going from the right to left as Chiharu sings Blue Night In Akasaka, with a snowy white foreground comprising sinewy four trees and snowy hills on the background; these along with the white smoke of the locomotive contrasts the train. The snowy landscapes communicates of the adversities that Tetsu is going to face while drifting, but the beauty of the scene can be expressed as his pleasure in duty, his soul does not suffer from the harsh conditions that life offers him.
He is chased throughout by rival yakuza members; he dodges or kills them to protect himself. He helps a gang shake off some other vandals in a macho, stylist way. He is himself helped out by a lone yakuza, Kenji “Shooting Star”. On the journey, he sees Chiharu on a train in the opposite direction; he does not react to her advances towards a lover’s reunion. He reaches the place of Umetani (Isao Tamgawa), one of Kurata’s subordinates. He runs a “Western Saloon” in Japan! There’s even a brawl in the place with a no distinct side as in a western flick. He tries to hit the road again after finding that Kenji is also staying there and he “can’t stand men with no sense of duty”. “I thought he was old-fashioned, but you are worse,” replies Umetani. This may be viewed as a conflict between a samurai’s (Tetsu) sense of duty to a ronin’s (Kenji) lone wolf nature. On the other hand in Tokyo, Kurata decides to kill Tetsu to make peace with Otsuka and orders Umetani to execute him.
Understanding that everyone is trying to keep their own head, he flies back to Tokyo for a final encounter against everyone. The finale takes place in a set of a restaurant bathed in white with a little spot of red. It is nothing of the sort seen in action movies; it looks more like a dream sequence of some New Wave film. The colours used can be visualized as Tetsu’s sense of duty shattered by his Kurata’s order to kill him, creating a permanent bloody wound in his white heart. Here only we are allowed to have a look at Otsuka’s eyes without the sunglasses and we find a sense terror in his eyes as Tetsu is on a rampant spree of killing. Tetsu does not kill Kurata but ends his “oath of loyalty”. Out of shame for his deeds of betrayal Kurata slashes his own wrist to death. Chiharu tries to bind Tetsu by her affection but “a drifter needs no woman”. Tetsu exits the place and walk towards an uncertain future.
Suzuki via Tokyo Drifter presents the viewer a hypnotizing experience of cinematic brilliance. It is a herculean task to cast this into a specific genre. On the outside it is a yakuza film; on delving into it, the film becomes so much more with its stunning visuals, repeating theme, soft lighting, presence of western elements and mostly an artistic overture; this is a magnum opus by a true auteur.
Film Score: 94
Director: Seijun Suzuki Screenplay: Kohan Kawauchi Cinematography: Shigeyoshi Mine Editing: Shinya Inoue Production Design: Takeo Kimura Music: Hajime Kaburagi Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Ryuji Kita, Eimei Esumi.