Saturday, March 12, 2011

REVIEW: Tokyo Drifter

東京流れ者 (Tokyo nagaremono)

Released: 1966

Seijun Suzuki

Tetsuya Watari
Chieko Matsubara
Hideaki Nitani
Tamio Kawaji
Ryuji Kita

Running time: 89 min.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

Watching "Tokyo Drifter" may be the perfect way to start a love affair with director Seijun Suzuki. If you've never seen one of his films before, you'll likely be dazzled by the colours that bathe the sets and characters (your eyes may indeed feel a bit bloated by the end after such a visual feast), caught off guard by the choppy timeline and editing choices, left puzzled but intrigued over the minimalist sets and smiling ear to ear at the utter coolness of the macho "live by the code, die by the code" yakuzas. Though he has plenty of examples in his wonderful career of taking off-the-shelf 'B' movie scripts and turning them into briskly-paced entertaining yarns that just happen to push the boundaries of the art-form of moviemaking, "Tokyo Drifter" (and its one year younger cousin "Branded To Kill") is probably the best example of a relatively controlled Suzuki bring all of his powers to bear for 82 minutes. He breathes life into this film.

However, I'm terribly biased...I'm a huge fan of Suzuki's work from the 50s straight through to the recent films he's made in the last decade ("Pistol Opera" and "Princess Raccoon") and admit that I would likely overlook flaws and inconsistencies and chalk them all up to the director's intentions. Though it was great to revisit "Tokyo Drifter" for the the first time in several years, I wasn't sure that I could add much more to a review. I've previously praised Suzuki's stylistic flourishes, unconventional approach to telling stories and sense of fun, so is there really much more to add in regards to this story of a wandering yakuza who hopes to protect his old family boss by taking the blame for an accidental killing? There is if you start thinking about modern day films that also make use of jumpy, non-linear narrative editing and story construction - say for example the recent Oscar winning (for Editing) "The Social Network". Though not as disorienting as Suzuki's typical choppy rhythms, Fincher's look at how we communicate (and miscommunicate) expects its viewers to follow the story and its ideas through numerous back and forth shifts between several timelines. It's wholly effective at communicating its own message as it allows you to assemble the story from its varied pieces in a similar manner to how our own brains might work - finding connections, unravelling codes, etc. In a similar way, though 45 years earlier, Suzuki trusted his audience to be familiar enough with the basic yakuza storylines that he could bounce at will to the more interesting scenes while we managed to fill the gaps ourselves.

It's not overly difficult to stay at pace with this particular story - Tetsu is a reformed yakuza working for his former boss who also went legit. They run a jazz club in a building his boss bought, but it's hard to just shake off your past. When other yakuzas led by the evil Otsuka try to take over the building and his boss ends up killing the wrong person, Tetsu takes the blame and becomes a "drifter". He roams Japan with his reputation always preceding him and an assassin (named Viper) trailing him. At the core of the film is Tetsu's code of honour and his allegiance to his old boss which drives him on his travels and keeps him away from the woman who loves him (a singer at the club named Chiharu). Even though he has committed to staying away from his former life, he still feels compelled to help one of the yakuza families he encounters on his travels. It's a decision that is harder for him than that of leaving Chiharu since he's a man ruled by his code (he chides another character who left the employ of Otsuka - "you've lost your sense of obligation"). It's boiler plate stuff in many ways, but Suzuki not only brings his magnificent style to the table, but manages to create actual characters.

Another strength of the film is its music - whether you break it down into its components or simply find yourself humming it, you'll find it hard to forget. The main theme of the film shows up numerous times on the soundtrack, but also within the story itself as both Tetsu and Chiharu sing or whistle it during several scenes. It's a mix of grand orchestral pop, lounge music and American jazz with bits of Hawaiian guitar and even traditional Bengali popular music and it works perfectly to tie the film together. One of the key lyrics that Tetsu sings is "If I die, I'll die like a man" and it reinforces his convictions and code. In one memorable scene, a warehouse full of battling yakuzas stop dead in their tracks when they hear Tetsu singing his theme off in the distance - it's like his calling card and a warning that he will not be swayed. They ready themselves for his appearance knowing of his reputation and, of course, get handily defeated. It's quite silly as a standalone scene, but fits wonderfully within the context of the film by adding to Tetsu's sense of his own obligations as well providing yet another gorgeously created and extremely fun set piece. If you've never seen a Suzuki film, I can recommend no better place to start.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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