Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter is a paramount attraction of 60s camp packaged in a yakuza B-film. It opens with highly stylized black and white imagery injected with almost psychedelic shades of color that never again leave the film’s palette. Its setting is Tokyo, Japan — but far different than any Tokyo humanity has actually seen in recent history. As such it does not exist and never has. Only in the mind of the director. It’s a swinging place of ultra-cool yakuza, jazzy vibes, and a fantastical atmosphere. Oddly indicative of the shoestring budget it was hewn from and still somehow invariably engaging.
We spend much of the film following in the footsteps of our eponymous lead Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a yakuza hitman whose every effort to go straight is being challenged and impeded on all sides. He cannot escape the life that defines him and finds himself continually caught in a web of yakuza gang wars that will not give him a moment’s peace. There are gunfights, brawls, even a bit of swordplay. He has a romantic flame, a sullen nightclub singer who serenades the world with her melancholy tunes, but even she cannot redeem his existence. There are always hitmen either after his life or looking to drag him back into the fray that he threw off.
But going into plot points and character arcs already strays too far from what makes this film enjoyable. There’s often the heightened tension found in many of Sergio Leone’s greatest Spaghetti Westerns here, employing many of the same stylized characterizations. The fact that our main protagonist announces himself through song and whistling strangely feels reminiscent to “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon a Time in the West. But this is a different beast. Rambunctious, chaotic and vibrant as it is.
Once more Suzuki is gifted in taking the mediocre — a narrative with very little to it — then instilling it with all sorts of energy similar to other inspired mavericks like Sam Fuller. But by the end, he’s transformed the narrative into an incomprehensible bedlam blessed with his own wickedly stylish aesthetic. There are sweet suits and shiny wheels. Nothing feels the least bit realistic. And it’s filled to the gills with surrealist situations conceived out of Suzuki’s own whimsical vision. Still, all the while it’s influenced by pop art and to some degree Technicolor musicals of the 1950s. It’s a sight to be sure, leaving its indelible mark on the b film niche. If anyone says low budget gangster flicks are the dregs of cinema, they’ve obviously never been acquainted with Seijun Suzuki