Release Date: April 10th, 1966 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Yasunori Kawauchi
Music by: Hajime Kaburagi
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani
Nikkatsu, 83 Minutes
“A drifter needs no woman.” – Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo
I never want to oversell a movie with a bold statement but on a rare occasion, I have to make such a statement. In the case of Tokyo Drifter, this may be the coolest movie I have ever seen.
The film is highly stylized and it starts with a sort of Wizard of Oz vibe, where it is presented in black and white but then opens up to vivid and surreal color. This was done to show a transition from the older Japanese culture into the more colorful modern culture of the time. This was a reflection of cultural shifts in Japan after it hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics.
From a style standpoint, Tokyo Drifter is a mixture of several genres of film. Visually, it is very avant-garde and has an intense colorful array that also utilizes shadows and contrasts similar to the Italian giallo style, which was just starting up around the time this film was made. It could also be compared to the neo-noir films of the late 1970s and early 1980s; The American Friend and Blood Simple. immediately come to mind.
Tokyo Drifter also brings things full circle for Japanese cinema. While a lot of westerns were channeling the work of Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki channeled the western genre in this Yakuza picture. Tetsu, the main character would whistle and sing like cowboy heroes as he walks on foot from battle-to-battle. Also, there is a big brawl in a saloon. Granted, it is an incredibly stylized modern parody of an old western saloon. Everyone in the bar joins the fight however and the scene is reminiscent of a saloon brawl from any western ever made.
While this is a Yakuza film, it parodies some of the genres tropes in an effort to show the other side of it. For instance, it plays up the aspect of loyalty but it shows that blind loyalty can have really bad consequences. In this film, Tetsu shows unquestioned loyalty to his former boss Kurata, only to be betrayed. The film conveys how power can be abused against its loyal followers.
Tapping into the Yakuza film trope of corporate corruption, the film also parodies this idea, as it shows how the main character is essentially an expendable part in the bigger picture, in this case the corporation being the Yakuza itself.
Tokyo Drifter also looks at the effects of conformity in Japanese culture in general but with most of its attention on the role it plays in the Yakuza lifestyle. It also analyzes the excess of that lifestyle.
Adding to the awesomeness and mystique of this incredible picture is the character of Tetsu, whose full name is Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo. “Hondo” most likely being a reference to the John Wayne movie and its novel by Louis L’Amour.
Tetsu is just one of the coolest antiheroes to ever grace the screen. He has swagger, he has killer moves and he can hold a tune as he walks through Japan awaiting the next Yakuza ambush. Played by Tetsuya Watari, Tetsu is like Michael Corleone mixed with the DNA of James Bond, The Man With No Name, Indiana Jones and Han Solo.
Tokyo Drifter is one of the coolest movies I have ever seen and I’ve seen thousands. Yes, I started this review with that statement but it is worth repeating. Few movies can ever put me in a true state of awe but Tokyo Drifter did just that.
You should definitely check out the Criterion Collection version of the film if you have access to it.