During the 1960’s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios hired Seijin Suzuki to make a series of crime melodramas that were to play on the bottom-half of double features. Because these where low budget films, shot in a month’s time, Nikkatsu gave the director’s free reign as long as the final result included plenty of gunfights and violence. Suzuki took advantage of this artistic freedom, fusing his stories with an artistry rarely seen in second-tier gangster movies. While 1966’s Tokyo Drifter went widely unheralded at the time of its release, director’s such as John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have claimed to be strongly influenced by it.
Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) was the number one gun for former crime boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). When Kurata disbanded his gang and decided to become a legitimate businessman, Kurata found himself beaten up by members of rival gang leader Otsuka’s members, after he refuses to join their gang and betray Kurata who has decided to become a legitimate businessman. In an effort to force Kurata’s hand, Otsuka’s gang gets the loan shark that holds the deed to Kurata’s property to sign over the debt to them. Things get even more complicated when Kurata refuses to sign over the property to them. Undeterred, Otsuka’s gang again tries to persuade Tetsu to join them by y kidnapping his girlfri finds himself caught up in a power struggle between the South Group and the North Group. In one last bid to get what he wants, Otsuka forms a alliance with Kurata end a lounge singer named Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara). However, despite their best efforts, Tetsu is able to stay one step ahead of them and rescue Chiharu from her would be kidnappers.
None-too-pleased, the gang frames Tetsu for a murder he didn’t commit. Tetsu decides to become a drifter until everything cools off. He briefly finds refugee with the members of a South Group, who has friendly ties to Kurata. Shortly after reaching the South Group, Tetsu finds himself caught up in a power struggle between the South Group and the North Group. In one last bid to get what he wants, Otsuka forms an alliance with Kurata. Their first order of business: kill Tetsu. With that Tetsu finds himself forced to confront his mentor.
For all its saturated colors and strange set pieces—including a massive bar room brawl that climaxes with the literal collapse of a saloon—Tokyo Drifter is a violent contemplation about trust, honor and betrayal. However, various campy touches—such as gratuitous footage of teenagers grooving to hip tunes in a local nightspot—reminds us that director Seijin Suzuki doesn’t want viewers to take things too seriously. Technically, Tokyo Drifter is incredibly impressive. From the oversaturated black and white prologue to the strange overhead shots, Tokyo Drifter will make you think.
Framed at 2.35:1, this standard DVD is as good as they come. Apart from a few instances of mild source damage, Grain structure and detail is impressive, while the colors remain vivid throughout.
The monaural soundtrack won’t blow you away, but it does justice to the film. English subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu (13 min.) in this new interview, director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu discuss the production history of Tokyo Drifter. The interview was recorded exclusively for Criterion in July 2011. In Japanese, with optional English subtitles.
- Seijun Suzuki (21 min.) an interview with director Seijun Suzuki, recorded during a retrospective of his work by the Japan Foundation and Los Angeles Filmforum at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles in March 1997. The Japanese director discusses his difficult relationship with Nikkatsu, body of work, and the state of contemporary Japanese cinema. In Japanese, with imposed English subtitles.
- Booklet – an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film critic Howard Hampton.