Tokyo Drifter is a gangster film that originally released in 1966, and is directed Seijun Suzuki. Suzuki has numerous films in The Criterion Collection including a favorite of mine, Branded to Kill. Tokyo Drifter was released on Blu-Ray on December 13th, 2011, as spine #39.
Tetsuya Hondo, a former member of the yakuza, becomes a “drifter” (an enforcer on the run) when his boss is forced to sign over a piece of property and their partner is killed.
This film opens with a black-and-white scene in which the film’s protagonist takes a beating from rival gang members. After the beating, a gun is left on the ground, shown glowing bright red. In the supplements of the release, Suzuki suggests that certain details are presented in this way to draw the viewers attention by use of vibrant colors to items that hold clues to the story. Tokyo Drifter is a violently colorful gangster film that embraces the influence of American Westerns. Suzuki is not shy or coy about his inspirations; in one scene, Hondo finds himself at a western style saloon, smoking a cigarette. After a meeting with his hook up, a huge battle ensues after customers won’t stop touching the dancer. This scene begs immediate comparison to old school saloon fights, yet Suzuki presents it in his own stylistic way.
My favorite apect of this film is its naked anime influence. The two main characters feel constructed straight from the anime template and they are named fittingly. Tetsuya the Pheonix and Tatsuzo the Viper. True to the suggested form, they battle the entire film until their ultimate showdown at the aforementioned saloon.
It would be in bad form to mention this film’s borrowed influences without mentioning the influence it has left on other great works. Tokyo Drifter is a cherished movie, called upon not just by later films, but in other arenas of entertainment as well. Quentin Tarantino admits to using this film as inspiration in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Kill Bill uses similar camera work and aesthetic framing (see image abvove), characters crafted in a relative manner, and comparable story arcs. Tarantino is a very good director on his own, don’t get me wrong, but he does not have the same grasp on how to tame his influences like Suzuki. Outside of film, I’ve always felt there is an undeniable and perhaps intentional connection between the character Tetsuya and Vash the Stampede from the anime Trigun, both characters carrying awesome names and struggling to fight off violent pasts.
As an early Criterion release, it’s easy to determine that the company had yet to reach its full potential on the science of supplements. There are only three supplements in the release: The trailer, an interview with Seijun Suzuki from 1997, and another interview with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu (awesome name). Though these interviews offer some deep insight into Suzuki’s career and some speculation on the film, they are not enough to be excited about.
Tokyo Drifter is a fun film that offers up some masterful camera work. But the supplements on this release do not offer much beyond what one might find on a standard release. I’ll never try to dissuade anyone from a Criterion release, but it might be better to catch this one via Hulu membership, if that’s an option.
Criterion Grade: D
Film Grade: B+