Tokyo Drifter, 1966, directed by Seijun Suzuki, written by Yasunori Kawauchi.
This is another one of Seijun Suzuki's movies for Nikkatsu, and, like Branded To Kill, it has a pretty banal script but is worth seeing for its lurid style. Suzuki got to shoot this one in color (he never made this decision himself, as he explains in an interview on the disc) and, well, never let it be said that he didn't use enough color. The exterior shots in this movie feature realistic looking streets, but the interiors are abstracted to the point of absurdity and feature eye-popping colors. This is easier to see than to describe:
So, yeah, give Suzuki a color palette and he's going to make full use of it. Stranger still, the colors have thematic significance, which I'd seen in the theater but never on film (at least not so blatantly). Take the bottom still: the man in the red coat is Otsuka, the villain of the film. Pretty much any shot he's in, they'll be some other object arbitrarily colored red, which in this movie is also the color of violence. When the woman in the middle still is shot, the windows behind her are halfway colored red; later, Suzuki cuts back to that shot but the windows are now fully red, as though they've filled up with blood. His fidelity to this color scheme extends to the special effects: at a crucial moment, the hero's gun has a red muzzle flash, as below:
Thematic use of color isn't some great, startling invention, but I have never seen a movie that stayed so faithful to its initial rules. As with Branded To Kill, however, the question to ask is not whether Suzuki is stylistically inventive (he is), but what his style is in service of. And although Tokyo Drifter is a much more accessible movie than Branded To Kill and has a much more traditional style, it seems to me to have more going on beneath its surface than Branded To Kill did. It has a standard Yakuza plot, but scratch it and you'll find a critique of Japanese adoption of Western culture, customs, and economics after World War II. I don't mean to suggest that this movie is the work of a genius; in a lot of ways (the acting, for instance) it struck me as mediocre. But it's more interesting than it looks at first glance.
I'm not sure how much of the subtext of Tokyo Drifter is Suzuki's and how much was in Kawauchi's screenplay. I do know that Suzuki routinely made dramatic changes to the scripts he was assigned; in the interview on the disc, he says, "I believe if the script is perfect, there's no reason to make a movie of it." But some of the things in the dialogue are also played out in the set design, so Suzuki clearly had something to do with it. Here's the basic setup. Tetsuya Watari plays Tetsu, the right-hand man of a criminal boss named Kurata. Kurata is trying to go straight, and Tetsu is commited to helping him do it (the movie opens with Tetsu allowing a rival gang to beat him up rather than fight back and provoke them). Kurata is in the process of buying an office building from a man named Yoshii, and another criminal boss, Otsuka (the man in the red jacket above), wants to buy it from under him. The movie chronicles Tetsu's betrayal by his boss; he begins the movie fiercely loyal, and ends completely adrift.
Throughout Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki contrasts Tetsu's value system, based on loyalty, with Otsuka's, based on profit. This is the same thing you see in The Godfather, with the exception that Suzuki explicitly links Otsuka's values to western culture. You can pretty much tell how evil a particular character in this will be from how western they are. Yoshii, for example, is a capitalist; he owns the building that Kurata wants to buy, and he's making his living from interest. However, he's still basically a nice guy; he cuts Kurata a break early on, and he seems to represent the best that western civilization has to offer: an ethical business man. So you would expect that his surroundings would reflect that. And here's his office:
Yes, those are Greek frescoes on his walls: western, but not modern. Yoshii, by the way, gets killed about twenty minutes into the movie by Otsuka, who is more of a modern westerner. Otsuka's office is in the upstairs lounge of a club that's filled with teenage Japanese kids dancing to rock and roll, and one of his trusted hitmen drives what appears to be a 1957 Chevy. Tetsu's attitude towards this aesthetic, at least at the beginning, is exemplified by what he does to the Chevy: he steals it, drives it to a junkyard, and parks it here:
So that's a pretty simple dichotomy. What complicates it is that over the course of the movie, Tetsu changes from someone with a classic Japanese concept of loyalty into someone closer to the hero of an American Western. The movie ends, in fact, with an archetypical American Western scene: Tetsu rejects the love of a woman he used to pursue, and walks off into the night alone. If you have any doubt that Suzuki has American Westerns on the brain, halfway through the movie is a gigantic brawl at a "Saloon Western," complete with swinging doors, people getting hit over the head with chairs, and people being thrown out through a glass window right next to the bar. Western heroes don't form attachments to women; they act for themselves until they are forced to act. When the time comes, however, they use violence with great precision as a tool to defend the powerless. That's more or less where Tetsu is at the end of the movie, but he's definitely a Japanese version of this character; rather than killing his former boss, he gives him a broken glass and lets him commit suicide. I think the idea of honor is what replaces the idea of loyalty in a Western hero, and Tetsu's conception of this is a Japanese one. How long will that ideal stand against the western morality of money and power? Well, Tetsu does kill the bad guys and escape. But right before the last shot of him walking away, Suzuki sneaks in a montage of some neon signs around Tokyo that suggest that he's a bit more pessimistic than his script would suggest. The signs read, in English:
NEW Latin Quarter!
- I didn't have any random thoughts or facts about Branded To Kill, mostly because I had to work pretty hard just to make sense of it. Sorry.
- Tokyo Drifter marks the third Criterion Collection movie set in modern Japan, and the third Criterion Collection movie set in modern Japan that has a villiain wearing sunglasses. Do the Japanese hate sunglasses? Tokyo Drifter's version of this is especially jarring, as it features lots of closeups of Otsuka's glasses, like this one:
- In 1985, Seijun Suzuki was named the Best Dressed Man in Japan by the Japanese Fashion Society.
- The interview on the disc with Suzuki has what might be the secret to why the acting in this movie isn't so spectacular. Here's what he says:
Tetsuya Watari, who is the main character in Tokyo Drifter, is now one of the biggest stars in Japan. So, now I wouldn't want to say anything that would hurt his reputation, but I think... Tokyo Drifter was his first feature film, I am pretty sure of that. And I had orders from the company to make Watari a star. But, on the set, he couldn't say the lines when we called action. He froze and was speechless. In order to make him say the line, let's say he was sitting somewhere in the scene, the AD would hide behind the chair and hit him with a broom or something, then, I don't know why Watari could say his lines, but he did. That's the most memorable thing about Watari.Not a big vote of confidence from your director, Watari.
- After the great action sequences in Branded To Kill, I was expecting some excellent fight scenes. But the fights in this movie seemed too abstract to be much fun. The final gun battle takes place in a nearly empty room, bathed in light; it has nothing of the messiness that makes the action in Branded To Kill exciting. There is one very tense showdown in Tokyo Drifter, however (and, not surprisingly, it's set outside, where the surroundings are more realistic). I'll just put up a still and you can sort out what makes it tense for yourselves.
- In an interview I read about Kill Bill, Tarantino talked about how Japanese movies used blood in a theatrical way, and that that's what he was going for in the fight scenes of his movie. Seijun Suzuki is definitely from that school. The scene where Kurata cuts his wrists? Like an oil well in his sleeve.