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  • Ravi Swami

"Tokyo Drifter" dir: Seijun Suzuki, 1966

I'm back ! least for some very brief reviews of films that I've watched since my last post, many of which have passed unreviewed not because they were especially unremarkable, in fact quite the opposite.

I've watched many of Isabelle Huppert's films via a current season on Criterion Channel, the films of French comedy genius Pierre Étaix, also on Criterion, and more recently have sought out films starring Isabelle Adjani, although they can be difficult to find in collections in one place online.

Criterion Channel, the streaming service of The Criterion Collection, are currently hosting a collection of the films directed by the very individualistic Japanese director Seijun Suzuki who was notoriously fired by the studio that had supported many of his films throughout the 1960's, Nikkatsu, before he dropped off the radar briefly to resurface in the 80's and 90's.

Suzuki's oeuvre tended to centre on the Tokyo underworld of the Yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, who flourished in Japan's post-war economic boom and "Tokyo Drifter" is one such film.

Typical of Suzuki's often wild and experimental style, the reason for his later conflicts with Nikkatsu who felt his films threatened their commercial prospects, the film details the journey of the titular character, Tetsuya Honda, or "Phoenix Tetsu", due to his uncanny ability to cheat death and return to find his target and who becomes the drifter of the title in the style of the Medieval Japanese "Ronin" or lone wandering vigilante.

His reason for becoming a drifter is depicted in a rather Byzantine plot involving a rival Yakuza's attempt to buy the property of Tetsuya's boss via blackmail and murder if necessary, and to whom Tetsuya is extremely loyal to the extent of seeing him as a father figure.

However, Tetsuya's boss has a secretary, a young woman who enjoys reading children's "Manga" when she isn't conducting secretarial activities, and who turns out to have ratted on her boss to the rival Yakuza since one of his henchmen is her lover.

When Tetsuya discovers the plot he accidentally kills the secretary and is suddenly a target for elimination which forces him to leave the city with the help of his boss who instructs him to meet a friend in a distant town where he can be safe.

Into this mix is thrown Tetsuya's girlfriend, a nightclub chanteuse whose song "Tokyo Drifter" becomes a recurring leitmotif throughout the film - the same song is sung over the opening titles sequence - and who fears that she will be separated from Tetsuya forever because of his lifestyle.

The film opens with a sequence featuring Tetsuya being beaten by members of a rival gang shot in high contrast monochrome before shifting to vivid and stylishly art-directed full colour for the remainder of the film, something that achieves a distinctive and stylish graphic quality in scenes set in the nightclub where Testsuya's girlfriend sings both during and at the climax of the film.

It's easy to see how influential the film, and Suzuki's work in general, has been on the films of Quentin Tarantino in particular, and scenes of the gangsters walking through the dockside warehouses shot in B/W at the start of the film bring to mind similar scenes from his film "Reservoir Dogs".

Some of Suzuki's earlier films can be a hard watch since he very often employed novel - for Japanese film directors of the period - approaches to editing and structure before settling on a style that managed to retain an experimental quality without totally disorienting the viewer - for example, he satisfied the needs of distributors and audiences at the same time by including as many gun fights as possible in his films, and "Tokyo Drifter" is no exception, even fitting in a riotous Hollywood Western type bar room brawl for good measure.

"Tokyo Drifter", Dir Seijun Suzuki, 1966

Criterion Channel

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