Film Review – Tokyo Drifter (1966, Criterion Collection)

Yakuza film have been a staple of Japanese cinema for over 60 years. Stories about Japan’s organised crime syndicates are quite unique to Japan but they still have a somewhat stylised and romanticised vision, similar to how the western world tells stories of pirates and cowboys. Yakuza are depicted as chivalrous, noble and always doing things for the greater good. In cinema, the Yakuza are a large organisation of factions that they call clans and families, they wear expensive, tailored suits and despite their criminal dealings there is a sense of honour and respect for tradition that is handed down from generation to generation. These stories have inspired all forms of media from Manga, computer games and even western cinema. The influences from Japanese cinema runs right through popular culture although most audiences outside of Japan may be totally unaware of the influence, having maybe only ever seen a few Yakuza film, if any at all.

Tetsuya ‘Phoenix Tetsu’ Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) is a former member of a disbanded Yakuza gang, he plans to go straight but when a rival family tries to recruit him, his polite refusal puts a target on his head from some of the best assassins in the business. So, to protect his old boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita) Tetsuya must disappear and the best way to do that is to become a drifter. However, the people he leaves behind find themselves to be in danger as well as the grip of the Yakuza tightens around Tetsuya’s neck.

Tokyo Drifter is a highly influential film from director Seijun Suzuki but the influences come less from the story and more from the unique sense of style that the film. The film is not exactly the most original in terms of story but Suzuki puts his own spin on a genre that had been so integral to Japanese cinema even back in the 60’s. Thinking outside the box, mixing the old with the new, Suzuki rejuvenates the genre and gives the audience and experience that they would never have in any other film in this genre. Suzuki’s artistic side is let loose on Tokyo Drifter and suddenly the serious setting of a Yakuza film is painted with vivid colours in both its set dressing and its equally as well-dressed cast. There are Western inspired themes running throughout indicated through its high concept plot, characters and even its lead’s desire to whistle and sing the film’s theme tune throughout. However, due to Watari’s effortless cool, he manages to pull it off even when he is singing directly to camera. There are also scenes of gun fights and even a bar fight that escalates to a ridiculous level that take the West to the East and yet don’t seem so far out of place.

It could just be that every action film you see owes a little gratitude to Tokyo Drifter. If you notice how beautifully it is shot as well as being taken in by its cast of recognisable but unique characters that put an original spin on a tired genre then you may have Seijun Suzuki to thank. These days it takes a lot to find the artistic merit among the overblown, CGI laden scenes of gratuitous violence in action films, but every so often a director can be given the chance to show their own sense of style. They may even be paying attention to what the scene is telling the audience rather than just trying to get the right angle to show the most blood splatter from a bullet. Suzuki always denied Tokyo Drifter’s Western influences, so it may be possible that a director with as much visual flair may not even realise how far their influences have travelled.

Joel Fisher

Action, Crime | Japan, 1966 | 12 | Subtitles | Blu-Ray | 18th February 2019 | Criterion Collection | Sony Pictures | Dir. Seijun Suzuki | Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Ryuji Kita