Tokyo Drifter (Japan 1966)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 3/4/17
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tamio Kawaji, Hideaki Nitani, Tomoko Hamakawa

With Seijun Suzuki's recent passing, I decided to check out some of his critically acclaimed early works, which got him into trouble with Nikkatsu Studios. Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is a former Yakuza enforcer who has quit the gangster life and gone legit. Unfortunately, rival gangs refuse to honor his retirement into a peaceful life and eventually force him back into action, with bloody consequences. Suzuki's bold use of negative space and saturated colors perfectly reflects the outrageous stylistic sensibilities of the 1960s. Tetsu's bright blue suit violently clashes with the villain's bright red suit, and a questionable ally's bright green jacket makes you wonder whose side he's on. The stylized violence and larger than life characters obviously inspired later filmmakers like John Woo, and Tetsu's character is strongly reminiscent of Chow Yun Fat's Tequila character from "Hard-Boiled" (1992).

While some of the cinematography is brilliant and breathtakingly beautiful, some of it is just weird or downright bad. The scenes in the snow are particularly delightful, although Suzuki's use of neutral density filters is baffling and unattractive. There's also a bright red mailbox in the snow that Suzuki brings way too much attention to, which is unsettling. What's the significance of the mailbox? Does it serve any meaning or purpose? Or is it just a random quirk that he included to distract people and throw them off balance? The humor in the film is odd and misplaced, with the highlight being a campy and surreal bar fight at the Western Saloon which makes very little sense. The most bizarre scene in the film is when a woman falls from a collapsing platform and gets stuck on a railing. A toothless man underneath her is graced with a full view of her panties as the camera zooms in on the woman's compromising position, and then the man's face gets covered in whipped cream that falls from above. What's that all about? The perverse absurdity of it all is reminiscent of some of Russ Meyer's early works. The pacing feels sluggish, but was probably considered quite aggressive for the time. It's a conventional Yakuza story told in an unconventional way, and the outlandish style and presentation are what make the film memorable.