Plot: What’s it about?
Every now and then a film comes along that opens you up to the idea that not everything has been done that can be done. To me, Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter is just such a film. It is so mind bogglingly and recklessly creative that it leaves genre completely behind to become its own entity. For myself, this has always been why I enjoy the Criterion collection as much as a I do. I love a good straight forward film as much as anybody, but It has always been more exciting for me when I find something that rubs me as entirely unique. That is why Tokyo Drifter is a film that I find myself returning to almost every year.
The film revolves around a young thug named Tetsu who works for a syndicate boss named Kurata. They are both formerly Yakuza, and have decided to go legit. At the very beginning of the film Tetsu ( whom is repeatedly referred to as “The Phoenix”) takes a severe beating at the hands of a rival gang. He refuses to fight back to show them that he is out of the gang. His boss Kurata plans to pay off his mortgage to a lender named Yoshii for eight million yen. Unfortunately, through a trick a rival gang acquires the mortgage debt from Yoshii. They kill Yoshii and attempt to kill Tetsu but fail. The gangsters approach Kurata who fires a shot at them and kills his secretary ( who was working with the rival gang to set him up.) In order to protect his boss Tetsu agrees to become a drifter that they can rest the blame upon.
From reading the paragraph above, you would assume that this is a pretty serious gangster film. You would be absolutely wrong. One difference would be that Tetsu happens to sing a pop song about himself at every chance that he gets. You read that right. The hero sings about himself. Numerous times. Then you have the overall look of the film. Suzuki fills the frame with vibrant pastel and neon colors. Tetsu tends to wear crazy colored suits: baby blue, mustard yellow, completely white. The backgrounds are painted in the same bizarre and awesome color pattern. It gives the film an absolutely surreal vibe similar to some of the color ideas used in the film Point Blank later on. Also, the violence is stylized and not gritty at all. There is hardly any blood in the film, and no cursing that I can recall. On top of all this madness is the score which is upbeat jazz by Shigeyoshi Mine. The score matches the movie perfectly and helps to elevate the film.
The film was made in twenty eight days on almost no budget at all, but it still looks incredible. The set pieces look fantastic and there are some truly stunning shots of colder areas in Japan. This film made me a fan of Suzuki immediately and the rest of his repertoire that Criterion released is awesome also. That said, Tokyo Drifter remains my favorite of his films. It is not as accessible as Youth of the Beast and not as crazy as Branded To Kill. To my eyes, it strikes the perfect balance and makes interesting decisions at every turn. I give the film my absolute highest recommendation.
Video: How’s it look?
This film looks great on Blu-ray, although I wish that it had been released a few years later by Criterion so it could have received an even bigger overhaul. There are few films that look anything like Tokyo Drifter and luckily all the crazy colors come across as vibrant as you would hope. Overall the transfer shines, but I can’t help but feel that clarity could have been slightly improved. There are some scenes that have a softness to them that should have been better addressed. Overall it is a great transfer that could have been a bit better.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This audio track is a lot of fun. It is presented in the original Japanese Mono mix, but the track is plenty memorable anyway. The jazzy score shines and the pop songs sung in the film sound great. The action scenes have the type of canned sound quality you would expect. I had no problems whatsoever with this track.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Trailer – an original theatrical trailer for Tokyo Drifter. In Japanese, with optional English subtitles. (3 min, 1080i).
- Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu – in this new interview, director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu discuss Tokyo Drifter. This was way too short, but was excellent material. Definitely watch it!The interview was recorded exclusively for Criterion in July 2011. In Japanese, with optional English subtitles. (13 min, 1080i).
- Seijun Suzuki – this interview with director Seijun Suzuki was recorded during a retrospective of his work by the Japan Foundation and Los Angeles Filmforum at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles in March 1997. Suzuki discusses his career and his approach to filmmaking. I loved this interview, I just wish it could have been longer. It was fascinating to hear about his constraints on both budget and content while working for Nikkatsu. In Japanese, with English subtitles. (21 min, 1080i).
- Booklet – an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film critic Howard Hampton.
The Bottom Line
Tokyo Drifter is a fantastic film, and it really shines on Blu-ray. I find that this has a ton of replay value. It made Suzuki one of my heroes instantaneously. I am a bit disappointed that the special features were less than an hour long total. Criterion owes us an updated release one day, but I am probably just dreaming to think that we would ever get a pure 4k scan and a couple hours of features. I highly recommend this film and still recommend owning the Blu ray despite the need for more supplements. If you want to watch the film first, it is available on Hulu Plus!