Published Feb 28, 2013Seijun Suzuki's most celebrated film is a bizarre experience, especially for the uninitiated.
The workhorse director has a peculiar sense of humour built on straight-faced parody of popular genres, especially those obsessed with style over substance. American westerns and musicals, French new wave, and Japanese film noir are the most recognizable targets/influences for the quirky blender of themes and sensibilities that is Tokyo Drifter.
Without a specific wink or nod in sight, though, it's difficult to discern just how much is intent to lampoon, and how much is the work of an eccentric director digesting and regurgitating every piece of pop culture around him.
Regardless of purpose, the result is a mixed bag. Suzuki's bold experimentation with extreme stylization at the expense of narrative has made him an icon to many aestheticians masquerading as storytellers. High contrast colour schemes, opulent set design and elaborate shot composition are among the erratic director's favoured tools of the trade; the images will stick with you long after the disjointed plot fades.
Speaking of, the nebulous narrative concerns a former crime syndicate trying to make a go of a legitimate business. A rival gang tries to woo boss Kurata's right-hand man, Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), into their service. When his loyalty fails to crack, they feed him a beating. The stark black and white intro scene sets up the broad archetypes the story plays with – Tetsuo sports a white suit while his attackers are clad in black – and hints at the absurdities to come – disorienting edits and brief flashes of colour.
While setting up the primary conflict, Suzuki uses obvious, but thoughtful, visual symbolism to point out the constraints of criminals going straight; during business discussions, Kurata and Tetsu are filmed through grating that represents the cage of their good intentions.
For the first act, the story almost makes sense, with acts of deceit and corporate blackmail establishing the bad blood between Kurata and the Otsuka gang that forces the highly professional but vicious Tetsu to leave town and adopt the lifestyle of a drifter. Once our protagonist hits the road, Suzuki goes bloody bonkers, leaving coherency by the wayside along with his whistling hero's stability, both mental and familial.
The rest of the film is essentially a series of montages that follow Tetsu from town to town as he's pursued by Otsuka's assassins and forges a tentative friendship with a fellow gangster ronin. Behind the jarring editing, convoluted plot points and poor fight choreography (it's only slightly beyond the complexity of early Bond films) Suzuki maintains interest through moments of inventive cinematography and his consistently lavish art design.
If you're in the mood for slightly surreal absurdity that pokes fun at genre conventions by amplifying them, Tokyo Drifter might well work for you. For those who prefer more specific self-awareness from satire, it's a frustrating precursor to the kinds of image-obsessed acts of arbitrary coolness that self-conscious hipsters regularly parrot praise at.
If you decide to take the plunge, watch out for that damn theme song: once it's stuck in your head, it's tough to shake loose.
Tokyo Drifter screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 10pm on March 2nd, 2013 as part of the Tokyo Drifters: 100 Years of Nikkatsu retrospective. (Nikkatsu)