During my college years, the film universe fully opened up to me, allowing me to take in cult and foreign films that up until that time, I either had no idea existed or had only read about in books or on some antiquated Geocities webpage during the primitive days of the Internet. While IMDB was launched in 1990, the invaluable resource for all movie geeks—and bet settler extraordinaire–didn’t gain a ton of traction until around 1998 after Amazon purchased it and helped form the site into what I now use on a daily basis. My family had purchased a Packard Bell computer around 1996 but I had not once heard of this site until I spent time on a college campus; specifically, by hearing it mentioned in the first in a long(ish) line of film courses I would take during my tenure at Appalachian State. At that time, the college was in the midst of birthing a film degree, something that I would ultimately miss out on (queue the chorus of boos here) by the slightest of margins. They had just brought in their first, honest-to-God film professor, Craig Fisher, and the film courses went from two basic offerings, Intro and Advanced, and expanded out into surveys in world cinema, history of, and classes that would focus on one specific genre or auteur. I learned quickly to take only the classes that Craig was teaching; all the other professors were primarily English teachers and weren’t able to offer the stunning amount of insight that he was. They also lacked his boundless enthusiasm on the subject; it was always a treat to see him work a classroom, expounding on topic after topic, with arms flailing in an excited manner as he shuffled around the room in a manner that was surprisingly fleet of foot, given his girth at the time.
I was able to take 4 classes with Craig and all were enlightening and led me down paths that I might not have found by myself until much later in life; as such, my development in all things related to cinema hit warp speed from 1998 to 2002. While I relished each of these courses, the one that I gleaned the most from and “hit the sweet spot” in terms of my personal movie geekery, was his 3-hours-a-week master class on the history of Asian film. In addition to actual lecture time, I was given a minimum of 2 films to watch each week and for the first time was exposed to the genius and legend of Ozu, Kurosawa, Itami, Suzuki, Takeshi, and Mizoguchi. Directors that I was only partially introduced to before, like John Woo for example, began to take on a larger role in forming my tastes as a growing cinephile.
Yes, my head was about to explode with all this newfound information.
Geekasms were had.
If you have spent any time around me discussing film, it becomes rather obvious within a brief amount of time that I have a predilection for cinema that emerges from this corner of the world. This class wasn’t necessarily the origin of this love affair, but it’s inescapably what elevated it, allowing it to bloom into a life-long obsession within a larger life-long obsession. Out of all the masters I would come to learn about and love during those 5 months, the one director who would make the greatest impact was a renegade by the name of Seijun Suzuki; a director that carries with him a plethora of characteristics that I love most in the medium of film—the yakuza film, a free jazz soundtrack, retina-burning colors effects, and visual gags—plus, add in the fact that he created numerous masterworks in the ’50s and ’60s—my favorite decades not just for cinema but for overall ambience, clothing, women, its political upheaval, music, pop art and so on—and it was a match made in heaven. Over a career that would span 6 decades and 54 titles, none would match the considerable impact of his masterpiece, Tokyo Drifter.
Tokyo Drifter’s relatively uncomplicated story goes something like this:
Tetsu Hondo, who goes by the alias of “The Phoenix” (Tetsuya Watari), is a loyal foot soldier to his crime boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita), an extraordinarily altruistic man considering he plies his trade in enterprises exclusively related to criminal activities. Kurata, a father figure for Tetsu, even approves of his relationship with a stunning lounge singer named Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), who will obviously need protecting at some point. Near the beginning of the film, Kurata makes the decision to disband his organization and go legit, leaving him open to rival mobsters looking to take advantage of his new station in life. Tetsu remains faithful to his former boss, getting badly beaten in the process. After healing, he is forced out of Tokyo and gets wrapped up in the doings of another shady character and Kurata alley that swiftly places Tetsu’s life in danger. Tetsu, saved yet again, this time by Kenji Aizawa (Hideaki Nitani), a wise, well-traveled ex-Yakuza, who warns Tetsu that his loyalty is misplaced and that soon Kurata, his beloved boss, will turn on him. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Kurata caves under threats of blackmail and gives up Tetsu to his rivals as they demand nothing short of our hero’s death. Word that he has been targeted reaches Tetsu by way of a thug nicknamed “The Viper” (Tamio Kawaji), and going against Kenji’s advice, Tetsu returns to a city where every thug lays in wait to right the wrongs levied against him and to protect his one true love, Chiharu.
What was supposed to be a typical Yakuza genre film and the debut of Nikkatsu Studio’s newest young discovery, Tetsuya Watari, wildly veered from its aim under the direction of an outlaw like Suzuki. Originally, Nikkatsu wanted to provide its audience with a feel-good acting showcase and love story set in the backdrop of the criminal underworld. Instead they got a movie that featured only a handful of scenes focusing on the relationship between the two lovebirds, in other words, nothing that would serve to set up Watari as a future matinee heartthrob. While the actor is shot lovingly and still looks cool, he nevertheless comes across as a wimp when compared to Hideaki Nitani’s Kenji, who evokes the cool, calm, and collected attitude of Hollywood legends Robert Michum and Humphrey Bogart. With an advertising plan already in the can, Nikkatsu suddenly had a vastly different film on it’s hands, with absurd action sequences, a theme song that when combined with the on-screen action–whether it be sung or whistled–clashes in a sublime manner with the visuals, and a color scheme fit more of a MGM musical of yesteryear all of which only serves to undercut the dour Yakuza themes associated with the genre.
While the studio hated what they received from the fiercely unique director, there is no doubt that Suzuki was fantastically successful in bringing his vision of the material to the screen. Always anachronistic, Suzuki’s style blends the best that Pop Art has to offer with the vivid artwork contained in Japanese Manga; characters are routinely set against flat backgrounds reminiscent of the panel work utilized in their comics. Further confusing the studio, the director chose color palettes that are constantly askew for no reason other than to mess with the audiences expectations. When weapons are fired, background colors change in time with the sound of the shot making it next to impossible for the viewer to take his or her eyes off the screen. In the most flagrant offering of this nature, a scene that is set in a snow covered landscape turns blue for no reason when a filter wipes across the screen. In regards to set design, most are beautiful representations of images existing only in the director’s mind prior to bringing Tokyo Drifter to life; in particular, the nightclub set at the end of the movie are legendary examples of thinking outside the box and minimalism.
As is often the case with a true auteur, Suzuki, and by extension Tokyo Drifter, remained largely misunderstood by most for a lengthy period of time. What Nikkatsu failed to notice in this now, rightfully recognized classic was how it playfully deconstructed the themes and genre trappings Yakuza films employ, all the while doing so with a marvelously self-conscious tone. It also works well as a reaction to all the goofy spy movies that flooded the marketplace in the wake of the James Bond craze of the 1960s, taking the style of those efforts (think Modesty Blaise, or the In like Flint and Matt Helm series) but replacing the juvenile tone with something a little more cynical, especially when the movie focuses on the director’s thoughts on honor and loyalty. Suzuki’s shift in tone in relation to these themes would soon be imported to other countries, most notably seen in the works of Sergio Leone’s Man with no Name series, and in America, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen. It would also serve to revitalize a flagging genre in its own country as young, like-minded directors saw in Tokyo Drifter what the studio could not. Not bad for a movie intended to be a piece of fluff.