When Seijun Suzuki, under contract with studio Nikkatsu, delivered Tokyo Drifter to the company in 1966, he wound up landing in some hot water with the executives who had backed the picture. Suzuki had been asked to deliver a traditional Yakuza picture, the kind that were doing well at the box office in Japan at the time and what he gave them was the complete opposite of a 'straight' Yakuza film. A delirious blend of comic book style visuals, black humor, strong violence and slick camerawork, Tokyo Drifter wasn't the film Nikkatsu had wanted - not even close - but it has gone on to be rightly recognized as a pop art masterpiece.
The film begins when a man named Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), nicknamed Tetsu The Phoenix, is being roughed up by rival gangsters. Tetsu claims that he and his boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), have disbanded their gang and gone straight but these guys are having none of it. They work for Otsuka (Eimei Esumi), a crime lord who wants the building that Kurata still owes mortgage payments on and so they eventually convince the loan shark who holds Kuarat's debt to sign the deed over to them. When Kurata still refuses to give Otsuka and his men the building, they decide to put more pressure on him by kidnapping Tetsu's girlfriend, a beautiful chanteuse named Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) but Tetsu shows up in time to stop them from abducting her.
When the Otuska gang manage to kill of a woman and frame Tetsu for it, he decides his best course of action is to leave town so as not to cause anyone any more grief, and so he takes on the life of a drifter and heads to the southern part of the country to lay low. When he joins up with some of Kurata's friends in the area, he soon finds himself stuck in a gang war between two factions vying for control of the area. Things get even more complicated when it turns out that Kurata and Otsuka have put aside their differences with the intention of removing Tetsu from the equation once and for all.
Shot with a touch of surrealism and more than a few broad strokes of the psychedelic, Tokyo Drifter is, especially for its time, one of the most atypical Yakuza films you're ever likely to see. While contemporaries like Takashi Miike have, in the last decade or so, taken the genre to ridiculous extremes in 1966 that hadn't happened yet and Suzuki's film really sent Nikkatsu studio executives into a bit of a panic. When viewed through modern eyes it's easy to see how this film would go on to influence everyone from the aforementioned Miike to Quentin Tarantino and countless others but in its day this had to have seemed like little more than an exercise in the bizarre and a waste of studio money. Time has been kind to the picture, however, and those strange theatrical looking backdrops and sets bathed in primary colors shot through skewed angles and with a penchant for close ups that once looked weird are now obviously the work of a man with a unique vision.
To call Tokyo Drifter comic book-esque would be accurate but there's more to this than just a strong pop art sensibility. The character of Tetsu, well played by then up and comer Tetsuya Watari (a very unlikely casting choice as a typical tough guy Yakuza, as he's got a bit of a baby face), is a quick shot and a guy you won't want to cross, but on the flip side of that he sings his own theme song, dresses in baby blue suits and hangs out in jazz clubs. As you watch the film it becomes obvious that Suzuki was as influenced by films like West Side Story than he was by earlier Yakuza and gangster pictures and the film, on a visual level, has more in common with Hollywood musicals - just pay attention to the sets and, well, the musical numbers that pop up unexpectedly throughout the feature.
As the story builds to its violent conclusion, you get the impression that within the format of the Yakuza film Suzuki is more interested in exploring love, loyalty and art than he is revenge, crime and murder and the fact that all of those elements mix as well as they do here is testament to the director's skill and ability to create films unlike anyone else. If at times it feels like an exercise in style over substance, maybe it is, but when it's done as well as Tokyo Drifter is done, it's easy to forgive things and just get lost in the strange world Suzuki has created for us with this picture. Suzuki would follow this picture with Fighting Elegy the same year and then Branded To Kill a year later, after which Nikkatsu would fire him and he would famously take them to court and win, but which would result in a ten year blacklist in the Japanese film industry.
Tokyo Drifter looks gorgeous on Blu-ray presented in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer in its proper 2.35.1 widescreen aspect ratio. If you've seen the film before, you'll probably remember that the black and white opening scene has some strange blown out white levels and contrast is heavily abnormal resulting in some fairly black looking skin tones - this look is carried over to this new transfer as well. Once it switches to the color film stock, though, that's when you really start to notice the benefits of this high definition upgrade (Criterion's previous DVD release as non-anamorphic). Detail is vastly improved not only in close up shots where you can make out a scratch on a certain character's sunglasses but also in medium and long distance shots as well, where the texture of a cloth jacket is readily apparent or the fine lines of bottles behind a bar now completely visible. Color reproduction is perfect - the primary hues really pop, especially the yellows and reds that Suzuki uses throughout the movie - while skin tones look very nice and natural throughout the entire film. A few shots look softer than others, which has always been the case with this film, and sometimes the rear projection effects are a bit more obvious than they have been in the past (the scene with the train being the most obvious example) but you can't fault the Blu-ray for representing the film as it was originally made. Without wanting to ramble on unnecessarily, the image quality is excellent.
The only audio option on the disc is a Japanese language LPCM Mono track, with optional subtitles provided in English only. For an older mono mix, it's pretty hard to find fault with this track. Dialogue is well balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion at all. The sound effects, gun shots in particular, are very crisp and well pronounced and the score, courtesy of Shigeyoshi Mine, sounds excellent. If range is limited by the original source material, so be it - a 5.1 remix might have been fun for the action sequences but purists will be quite happy with Criterion's results here, the movie sounds great.
New to this re-issue of Tokyo Drifter is a twelve minute interview with Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu in which the director and assistant director discuss the making of the feature and the significance of the theme song as well as what went into writing the picture and why the film starts in black and white and why it looks the way that it does. Carried over from the previous DVD release is the twenty-minute interview with Suzuki that was taped in 1997 in which he discusses why he switched from Shochiku to Nikkatsu to make more money, the subsequent trouble he got in with Nikkatsu over their reaction to some of his movies, how he tried to make pictures outside the norm often on a low budget and what it was like working with leading man Tetsuya Watari. Recorded at Los Angele's Nuart Theatre in March of 1997, this is a pretty fascinating discussion.
Aside from that, look for the film's original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter stops and all of the extras are presented in high definition and in Japanese with English subtitles (including the trailer). Inside the keepcase there's a full color sixteen page booklet which contains not only disc and movie credits but also an essay from writer Howard Hampton that provides some welcome historical and cultural context for the film.
While some of us would have loved to have heard a commentary with the director recorded for this release of Tokyo Drifter, this is otherwise a superb representation of one of Seijun Suzuki's finest and most influential films. The audio and video are top notch, with the new high definition transfer offering up way more detail than ever before, and the film itself remains as compelling as it is visually stunning. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.