Seijun Suzukis Tokyo Drifter is one of those movies which is all about the experience. A stunningly shot, vibrantly designed gangster movie which like Goddards À bout de soufflé perfectly reflect the revolution that was occurring in cinema at the time. In fact in many ways Tokyo Drifter epitomises the cool that is often associated with the French New Wave.
Tetsu and his boss Kurata are ex-gangsters looking to put their life of crime behind them and go straight. When a rival gang, not convinced of their intentions, sabotages Kuratas loan Tetsu is drawn back into the underworld. Following a bloody confrontation Tetsu finds himself fleeing from Tokyo for his life.
Tetsu, an ice cool hitman in a pastel blue suit, isnt your typical amoral gangster. He follows a samurais code of honour and has undying loyalty to Kurata even when offered an incredible position within the rival gang. He is just the personification of cool unflinching and determined to carry out whatever task he is handed.
The film is simply a joy to look at with Suzukis eye for visual design proving to be consistently astonishing. While the film opens in grainy black and white, with a scene where Tetsu gets roughed up, it soon develops into a pastel coloured flurry of wild and vivid set design.
Everything bursts with life and vitality from the crisp red of the baddies suit, to the purple glow of the nightclubs and luscious whites of the snow-capped mountains where Tetsu makes his retreat.
Its a shame then that with all of these wonderful design elements that the story at best fails to engage and at worst is outright boring. The main problem lies in the fact that not many of the scenes connect very well and it soon starts to feel like a series of set pieces which all form together to create one basic narrative. While the individual scenes are engaging enough and the concepts throughout the movie varied and interesting the overall package doesnt gel together as well as Suzukis later masterpiece Branded to Kill.
Thats not to say the film is terrible, in fact it has some moments that are pure cinematic moments and some truly inventive ideas. The assault on the snowy yakuza headquarters in the 2nd act of the film is a truly wonderful piece of action and the final confrontation is a moment of pure celluloid magic.
It comes down to the fact that this film is very much style over substance. What is interesting is that while Branded to Kill inspired a large amount of western directors, look at Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai for evidence, Tokyo Drifter seems to have resonated far more with Japanese directors.
Certainly Takashi Miike fuses the sheer abusive violence of Kinji Fukasaku with the more surrealistic elements of Suzuki; Tetsu constantly whistling his own theme tune is a device that perfectly demonstrates the internal logic of Tokyo Drifter. Beat Takeshi also seems to have taken composition and plotting elements from Suzuki, in fact Tetsu can be seen as beta version of the characters that will appear in films such as Hana-Bi.
What Suzuki ultimately accomplishes is a film which while uneven has moments of pure genius and which has tangible influences even today.
I would recommend this as a curio for people interested in seeing where contemporary Japanese directors got their inspiration. For anyone wanting a film which is pure entertainment then Suzukis Branded to Kill, a film which eventually ended his studio career, is a far safer bet.