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Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki Seijun 1966)


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Tokyo Drifter
[Tokyo Nagaremono]

Genre: Noir Yakuza Tale

review in one breath

Tokyo Drifter is a stylish noir film by director Suzuki Seijin. The film is very well-known, as is Suzuki, and both have a well-deserved cult following. Suzuki directed several memorable films in addition to this, including Fighting Elegy (1966) and perhaps the mother of all Japanese gangster noir, Branded to Kill (1967). In Branded to Kill Suzuki tells an amazingly bizarre yakuza tale in black and white, with stark photography and vibrant, over-the-top characters. In Tokyo Drifter, the characters seem much more mainstream and Suzuki chooses the visual medium to channel the majority of style. The film moves from one colorfully designed set to the next, employing various camera techniques and angles. The result is clearly a pop-noir yakuza movie whose characters border between the stereotypical and comic book-like.


Tokyo Drifter is a story about modernization and the changing values it creates. More specifically it is a story in which the traditional ideal of samurai bushido, of the loyalty of a warrior to his master, is redefined due to changing times, resulting in the warrior's floating adrift and unallegianced in an urban metropolis. The term "Tokyo Drifter", then, describes the final state of isolation, independence and detachment of our main character, "Phoenix" Tetsu (Watari Tetsuya). To reach this point, Tetsu must come to some stark realizations regarding what he understood to be the highest values of undying allegiance to his yakuza "Boss", Kurata.

The film opens with a black and white introduction in which we see "Phoenix" Tetsu strolling in a train yard. You are immediately struck by his dress, which consists of polished white shoes and a seemingly bright white suit (though if the film is consistent even here, it is the so-called "powder blue suit of honor" which he wears up until his crisis of loyalty). He is confronted by several men from the Otsuka Group, former (and apparently current) rivals of the Kurata yakuza family to which Tetsu once belonged but which has been recently disbanded by Kurata himself. To test whether this "reform" is a ploy or in fact sincere, the Otsuka men mercilessly beat Tetsu into a pulp. Since both Tetsu and the Otsuka men seem to assume that any attempt at fighting back by Tetsu would indicate the reform was not sincere, Tetsu does little besides absorb all manner of punches, until he is left sprawling on the snow-covered train tracks (he's getting that brilliant suit dirty!). The Otsuka men take this to mean that the Kurata Group has indeed disbanded and that little threat remains from the once powerful Kurata and his right-hand man, Tetsu.

Back at the home of yakuza boss Kurata, Kurata is discussing with his financial guy the cash difficulty he now faces. Having disbanded the Group in order to "reform", for reasons that the movie never fully explains but which seem to be intuitable by Japanese audiences (due to certain stereotypes of noble yakuza), Kurata found himself dejected by his former partners in crime who have now all turned their backs to him, leaving Kurata to his own means for survival. Without recourse to crime and intimidation, the Kurata Group's income has all but dwindled, and Kurata has been forced to mortgage the centrally important "Kurata Building" to Yoshii the Realtor. Yoshii seems like a nice enough guy, but rules are rules, especially in the banking world, and Kurata needs to quickly hand over 5 million yen if he wants to keep the building. As Tetsu walks into his boss' house, he overhears that Kurata only has 3 million in cash, not enough to make the payment to Yoshii. Taking things into his own hands in order to help his aging boss, Tetsu visits Yoshii and requests that the 3 million be accepted as adequate payment, promising to secure more funds soon thereafter. Yoshii is impressed with Tetsu' allegiance to Kurata, even following the Group's disbanding, and agrees to accept the terms. When Yoshii comments to Tetsu regarding his allegiance to Kurata, Tetsu confesses "He's like my father".

Meanwhile, at the hip and groovy "ManHole Dance Parlor", run by the Otsuka Group, Yoshii's secretary Mutsuko, whose main activities in this film involve almost exclusively betrayal, ecstatic giggling at comic magazines, or getting shot, meets up with her boyfriend, an Otsuka man. While beatnik wannabes dance on the colorful floors below, Mutsuko whispers all the details of the meeting between Yoshii and Kurata, details she overheard while at the Yoshii office, into the ear of her yakuza boyfriend, who has her pinned against the wall in one of the hippest poses of embrace ever photographed. This juicy tidbit of information sets all sorts of wheels in motion by the Otsuka Group with the intent of gaining control of the Kurata Building and thereby subjugating Kurata to their power and influence.

Next, we are at the Kurata-owned "Alulu Club" watching the sexy Chiharu sing the "Tokyo Drifter song", a song which will become VERY familiar to the audience by the time this movie is done. Chiharu is employed in this brightly yellow-interiored club, and quietly sighs over her profound love for Tetsu. But alas! Otsuka himself, leader of the Otsuka Group has his lusty sites set on Chiharu for his own, and has sent his men to the club to kidnap the fair, wide-eyed Chiharu. With a gun to her back Chiharu enters the waiting get-away car with driver, accompanied by two Otsuka men. When all hope seems to have faded, the get-away driver announces himself to be none other than... TETSU! Although the two men in the back seat have guns, the cool-headed and manly Tetsu is able to completely disable their shooting ability by radical driving techniques such as swerving back and forth and driving through large puddles. This apparently works, since camera shots of the men in the back reveal that they are undergoing duress similar to that of driving off the Grand Canyon at high speed (though Chiharu seems deftly unshaken). We are left with only assumptions regarding the details of this rescue since we are immediately catapulted to a toy arcade where Tetsu and Chiharu stand hand in hand shooting little duckies. Awww.

Back in the real world of manly men, the Otsuka men call Yoshii and dupe him into believing that Tetsu and Kurata are able to pay off the mortgage in full if Yoshii will only meet them at the ManHole Club. Similarly, Yoshii's sly secretary Mutsuko calls Kurata to inform them that the meeting time has been changed to later in the day (allowing time for the completion of the dastardly meeting of Otsuka and Yoshii). Once at the ManHole Club, Yoshii is ushered into the upstairs, backroom office to meet none other than Otsuka himself, who informs Yoshii that "Kurata has asked us to handle these financial aspects for him". When Yoshii attempts to deny this rouse, a few slaps in the face prove more than enough to cause him to rethink the matter. Although Yoshii knows that Kurata will likely kill him for this betrayal, he is forced to accept the full payment (8 million yen) and hands over the deed to the Kurata Building to Otsuka. As this transaction nears an end, the Otsuka men can't refrain from calling Tetsu to inform him that Yoshii has requested full payment for the Kurata mortgage from Otsuka. Realizing the trick, Tetsu rushes to the ManHole Club in time to see Yoshii shot in the back by Otsuka as he tried to make his way out of the office with the 8 million yen. As Tetsu enters the office, declaring that Otsuka is now in deep trouble, everyone, including Otsuka flees out a back way. As Tetsu chases after, he falls into a deep pit covered by a retractable walkway. (I am hoping this is the "Man Hole" the Club title refers to...). As Tetsu lies unconscious on the floor of the pit, the walkway returns, allowing the Otsuka Group to calmly make their way out of the Club.

Otsuka then visits Kurata, displaying the deed to the building, and demanding that Kurata sign the deed (using a "hanko" or "seal") thereby admitting utter defeat to the Otsuka Group. Kurata attempts to escape, and in the ensuing melee, Kurata shoots at an Otsuka man but instead hits Mutsuko who is reading a comic in the adjoining room. Although Mutsuko's boyfriend is outraged and wishes to kill Kurata then and there, Otsuka sees a great opportunity, and threatens to inform the police of the murder of Mutsuko at the hand of Kurata unless he is willing to sign the deed. Things are looking grim for the Kurata real estate empire, until, that it, Tetsu enters the room, gun in hand, declaring that he will then inform police of Otsuka's murder of Yoshii. (So there!) Under the protection of Tetsu, Kurata is able to escape, and as Tetsu makes his own way out, he is required to shoot and kill an overly aggressive Otsuka man who from all appearances is Mutsuko's boyfriend (but can't be, since the boyfriend appears in a later scene; but should be, since the next scene shows the newspaper headline: "Lovers' Suicide or Murder?").

Back at the very yellow Alulu Club, Tetsu is making eyes with Chiharu when a notorious Otsuka man named "Viper" Tetsu shows up. Tetsu strategically leads Viper out of the Club by running quickly for the door, jumping into a car, and driving away. Viper, not to be outdone, hails a taxi and sets out in hot pursuit. Tetsu leads him to a automobile junkyard, and they both seem to watch in awe as a piece-of-junk car is burned in a large furnace and then crushed into a cinder block, all while Tetsu is singing his manly theme song "Tokyo Drifter". By the time the song and car are finished, Tetsu has snuck up behind Viper and begins to beat him senseless. Tetsu warns the Viper that the girl's murder must be pinned on him (Tetsu) rather than Kurata or else all hell will break loose by his squealing on Otsuka regarding Yoshii. When the pulpy Viper relays the message to Otsuka, they make plans to kill him immediately ("Tonight!").

With Tetsu knowing that he will be blamed for the girl's death, he nobly decides to leave Kurata so as to avoid staining him with any repercussions. Kurata quietly weeps at the news, and Tetsu is able to keep a happy countenance until he reaches the door where he gets pretty misty eyed himself. Just as Tetsu exits the door, Kurata yells for him to return, and creates a seemingly bogus task for Tetsu simply to keep his company. So to recap, after a hugely emotional departure scene where both main characters get weepy over saying goodbye, they basically decided "never mind", and Tetsu stays in Kurata's employ. (okay...) Kurata has suddenly decided to write a letter to Shimada at Shonei, which he asks Tetsu to hand deliver. We know that this is a contrivance by the already lonely Kurata because when his secretary, overhearing that Kurata needs to speak with Shimada instead calls him on the phone, Kurata indignantly complains "That's too quick!" and demands she hang up on Shimada. Ha ha ha! What deep and loving ties Tetsu and Kurata must have! Next thing we know, Tetsu is on a train heading over snowy terrain toward Shonei. (?)

Here there is a strange cut which takes us back to the yellow Alulu Club, and into Chiharu's dressing room, where we find her wearing a large hair dryer somewhat akin to a space helmet. While she holds a long tube attachment connected to her helmet, one of the other girls marvels at the apparatus and asks Chiharu what it is. "Why, its the Charm Lady Hair Dryer," she says proudly and matter-of-factly. The camera then does a close up of the Charm Lady advertisement poster apparently hanging on the dressing room wall. The audience will stare blinking at the poster for about 30 seconds in what seems a blatant attempt to get us to rush out and purchase the Charm Lady. Amazingly, this is only the beginning of this movie's attempt to generate sales of hair dryers! But let's get back to the story...

Tetsu never makes it to Shonei. Along the way, Tetsu spots several Otsuka men, including Viper, on the train, and so he flees the train at the next stop. While being pursued by the Otsuka men down the snowy tracks, Tetsu is apprehended by a local cop, handcuffed, and slowly walked back to the station. As Viper has the handcuffed Tetsu in his sites for assassination, both Tetsu and the cop are ambushed by Senzo and several men from the "South Group". They subdue the cop by kicking him swiftly in the trousers and release Tetsu, who they are happy to see and expect to help fight the North Group, an Otsuka ally. Once back at the South Group headquarters, however, Tetsu informs them that he is "reformed" and that he will not fight. Although he wonders whether he should in fact let everyone down in this way, he ultimately departs the headquarters, making his way by foot along snowy paths into town for a hotel, all the while singing his apparently favorite (or only memorized) song "Tokyo Drifter". Meanwhile, the Otsuka men and much of the North Group have arrived at the South Group Headquarters, brandishing samurai swords and pistols, looking for Tetsu. After massive carnage and destruction of property, they hear someone's manly voice singing from the distant woods. Yet even with the extra time to set up an ambush for Tetsu, our too cool hero is able to single-handedly kill the entire troop and make his escape. It is in this fight scene that he establishes his "10 meter" rule dictated by the fact that his gun apparently cannot shoot accurately at distances greater than 10 meters. This requires him to run directly toward his wildly shooting opponents until he is within 10 meters, and shoot. It would seem that Tetsu's gun is the only one with such distance limitations, since the bullets from his enemies seem to be whizzing by him by the second.

As Tetsu makes his escape, we see that Viper has quietly remained on his tail, waiting for a good shot. Catching wind of Viper, the foot chase begins, involving snowy train tracks and weirdly imposed diagonal shadows apparently intentionally placed over the camera lens for style. Viper and Tetsu end their chase in a standoff on the train tracks, with Tetsu's back to a quickly approaching train. BUT Tetsu is again out of the 10 meter range, and must literally race the train toward Viper to within 10 meters where we hear a shot. Leaving the rest to our imaginations (???) we suddenly find Tetsu walking along the snowy path toward his hotel. Back in Tetsu's room, Viper suddenly bursts in, hand bleeding profusely, demanding to know why Tetsu didn't kill him. Apparently not liking the answer, Viper shoots Tetsu in the shoulder, alerting even more Otsuka men to where Tetsu is, creating another chase scene through the snow. This time, however, Shooting Star, a "former Otsuka man but now a loner" (read "Drifter") intervenes and smacks the Otsuka men silly while Tetsu escapes. Shooting Star then escorts Tetsu back to his hotel room and tends to his wounds. (Hmmm.) Star has a soft spot for Tetsu since he can see much of himself in the younger Tetsu. Star explains that he is now a pure Drifter, due in most part to a betrayal by his former boss Otsuka, and then strongly advises Tetsu "Don't trust Kurata too much." Tetsu objects, "I disagree!"

After healing a bit, Tetsu is on his drifting way again, and heads back to the train. While at a train stop, he sees Chiharu on an opposite bound train, undoubtedly going to look for him. Though Chiharu calls out his name and bangs on the window, the stoic Tetsu looks the other way, causing Chiharu to disboard her train and fall down several times in the snow as she unsuccessfully attempts to catch Tetsu's departing train. We are then told that Tetsu is indeed "Drifting, Drifting" (big text spells this out on the screen), all the way to Sasebo, Kyushuu, where he finds lodging at the "Western Saloon" overflowing with drunk American soldiers (speaking in british accents?) and a plump and randy caucasian stripper (who after taking one look at Tetsu grabs him and exclaims "You're better than all the men put together." - and she's right from the looks of the bunch they hired to play the drunk sailors!). The Saloon, it turns out, is owned by Boss Umetani, under whose protection Tetsu is able to remain for a few days. As Tetsu admires his "Western Saloon" accommodations, he stands transfixed at the shiny HAIRDRYER (!) the room provides, holding it lovingly in his hand. As Umetani suddenly enters the room and sees Tetsu caressing the dryer, he says something like "That's pretty cool, eh?", to which Tetsu replies, "Uh, yeah." and embarassingly put it down. (This scene completes the movie's "hair dryer sub-theme".) Within the few days that Tetsu is at Umetani's saloon, not only Shooting Star shows up, but also Viper. Things really start happening when a couple of drunk men in fundoshi (Sumo loin clothes) try to bum rush the stripper and the entire saloon erupts into a bar room brawl (Texas style!). Everyone joins in, including Star, Tetsu and Umetani (and the stripper!), with Viper hiding in the wings waiting for an opportune shot at Tetsu. The three are able to literally clear out the saloon (ending with an actual pile of about twenty drunken men, some giggling) and begin to restore order when Viper suddenly shoots Tetsu in the back twice (from a distance far greater than 10 meters!). Tetsu falls to the ground, as Star corners Viper, prohibiting his escape.

Viper doesn't seem to care though, and walks brazenly in front of Star, boasting that his career is now complete with the death of Tetsu. The smirk on his face is quickly removed, however, as Tetsu begins whistling, yes, THAT TUNE, "Tokyo Drifter". Apparently either two shots to the back are not enough to fell this too cool dude, or he fell to the ground out of sheer fright of the sound of the shots. I'll let you decide, but he doesn't have any shot wounds in the following scenes. Anyway, this freaks Viper out so much that he shoots himself in the head (at closer than 10 meter range), thus neatly removing his menace from the remaining plot.

Back at the Kurata house, Kurata is agonizing over the fact that Otsuka continues to hold the deed for his building. Otsuka has suggested a meeting regarding an exchange, and Kurata finally agrees. Otsuka now has only one priority, the death of Tetsu, who, he insists, remains a threat to both Kurata and Otsuka since he knows the truth regarding the deaths of Yoshii and Mutsuko. In exchange for Kurata's help in killing Tetsu, Otsuka is willing to give the deed back to Kurata and thereafter rent the building from him for 20 million yen in cash. And, oh yes, Otsuka wants Chiharu. After about 10 seconds of thinking, Kurata agrees and promptly calls Umetani, requesting that Umetani kill Tetsu. Both Umetani and Star are shocked to hear this, having grown fond of Tetsu through the brotherhood of bar brawls, but both realize that the world is a mean mean place. Star's attempts to warn Tetsu that Kurata has now betrayed him (remember Star's first conversation with Tetsu regarding trusting Kurata too much?) only get Tetsu angry at Star for "lying". After a few such accusations, Star slaps Tetsu around the mahjong hall until a chase ensues. As Tetsu chases Star outside, Umetani emerges, gun in hand, shooting at Tetsu in order to complete the request of Kurata. As Tetsu and Star exchange glances, Tetsu comes to the realization that he has truly been betrayed by Kurata. Star promises to distract Umetani while Tetsu escapes, and attempts to do so, but Umetani knows the shortcuts and emerges only steps behind the fleeing Tetsu with a clear shot. But Umetani refrains, and allows Tetsu to escape unharmed. Star and Umetani discuss Tetsu's fate, noting that although he is a "fine and decent" guy, he must inevitably go through the intense anger of betrayal. Tetsu quickly boards a plane back to Tokyo for some Yakuza-style pay back!

Meanwhile, back home, Kurata has been telling everyone, especially Chiharu, that Tetsu is dead (through some unfortunate means). At the yellow Alulu Club, we find Kurata and Otsuka, and the steamy Chiharu, who refuses to sing for her new lover boy. To get her vocal cords loosened up, Otsuka slaps her around a bit and then holds a gun to the head of her favorite pianist, who quickly nods at her and begins playing a tune. Chiharu belts out a few lines as the camera pans to include a very strange sculpture of a life-sized nude man holding a HUGE neon-red cheerio over his head (!). Tetsu suddenly enters through a white arched hallway, no longer dressed in his "powder blue suit of honor" but in his "hip drifter bright white suit". Unexplainedly, when the whitely dressed Tetsu sets foot in the Club's main hall, all the lights come on as if the radiance of his new suit lit the room. Needless to say, that Tetsu is still alive suprises everyone and Otsuka screams for his men to come a'running, and they do. Perhaps in the past, this would spell the demise of Tetsu the Loyal, but now they are dealing with Tetsu the Drifter who has plenty of tricks up his brilliantly white sleeve. His first trick is to drop his gun and kick it into the middle of the floor. This apparently throws off the guard of the five armed Otsuka men surrounding him. Right as their over-confidence has apparently peaked, Tetsu dashes into the center of the room, lunges for his gun, and proceeds to shoot circularly around the room, knocking off the Otsuka men one by one. (Maybe he needed to be in the center of the room, theoretically 10 meters from everyone, in order to shoot them? Pretty scientific, eh?). For his second trick he throws his gun onto the piano keys (making a discordant thud), which causes Otsuka to run for the gun and grab it, but not before Tetsu gets there first and SLAMS the keyboard cover down to Otsuka's hand causing a loud paino-noised crash, not to mention quite a grimace on Otsuka's face. Tetsu now finds himself standing with his back to Kurata, who tells Tetsu to stand still and prepare to die. (Actually, he just says "Die!", but I am trying to fill in some ambiance here.). So for his third trick and grand finale of Tetsu's Bag 'O Tricks, Tetsu throws his gun HIGH into the air, runs flailingly at Kurata who attempts to shoot but misses. Tetsu then catches his gun on the fly (which is traveling at a trajectory bizarrely different from the one he threw) and while still dashing wildly, shoots Kurata. As Kurata stands, shot and forlorn, Tetsu holds a brandy glass in his hand and while crushing it declares that "I am no longer your man". Brandy is running down his arm onto his bright white suit. As Tetsu and Chiharu run to each other and embrace, Kurata slashes his wrist with a piece of the brandy glass and profusely sprays himself with blood. This, of course, is just the type of self-inflicted noble humiliation of samurai justice we Japanese movie fans have come to admire and expect(?).

But Tetsu suddenly pulls away from the embrace of Chiharu, looking as if his testosterone levels dropped dangerously low, and proclaims "A drifter needs no woman." As the HUGE eyes of Chiharu begin to fill with tears, Tetsu stoically shakes his head and begins to walk away. As Chiharu follows behind, Tetsu screams, "I (a pure Drifter) cannot walk with a woman!!". As the white suited Tetsu makes his way back down the arched hallway, Chiharu clings disparagingly to the wall, weeping. Tetsu then emerges the Club and sets down the urban street walking and, of course, singing the "Tokyo Drifter song", - "I'm a Drifter, the man from Tokyo"

The End

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Suzuki Seijin is an iconic Japanese director and this is one of his classic films. Plenty of gun violence, fist fights, samurai sword flailing, and general slappings. Nothing too graphic, though one poor guy gets shot in the eye and lives to repeatedly peel off his eye patch to freak Chiharu out. One steamy, plump caucasian fan dancer who, amazingly, keeps all her fans intact during a wall-to-wall bar room brawl. Three things here. First, the over-the-top stoic sentiments of Tetsu which makes him seem bipolar. Second, Suzuki's color schemes really make this a visually interesting movie. And third, the whole hair dryer thing has really got me wondering what that's all about.

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