Tokyo Drifter Review

Tôkyô nagaremonon 1966, directed by Seijun Suzuki

The story of Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo Drifter, US title), follows Tetsu, played by Tessuya Watari, an ex-con who was once the former right-hand man to a Yakuza boss, Kurata, who has himself now gone straight.

A rival gang boss, Ostuka, attempts to recruit Tetsu from the beginning of the film but fails. Ostuka, fearing that Tetsu will interfere with his plans to take over a real estate deal from boss Kurata, assigns an assassin to kill Tetsu, called Tetsu Viper. Fearing that Tetsu’s presence will jeopardise the real estate deal, Kurata tells Tetsu that it would be best if he became a drifter.

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After leaving Tokyo, Tetsu meets the Southern Group who are at war with the Northern Group. After the Southern Group’s base is invaded he is forced to fight, and afterwards goes back to being a drifter. However, Tetsu Viper continues to pursue Tetsu. After being injured he meets a fellow drifter, Ken, who saves him from Ostuka’s men. Ken once worked for Ostuka but was betrayed by him and attempts to give Tetsu a warning about trusting one’s boss too much. Tetsu finds his way eventually to a friend of Kurata, Mr. Umetani, who is willing to take him in. Trouble isn’t far away, as a brawl erupts in the bar of the hotel he’s staying in. Ken once again saves Tetsu, while Viper commits suicide rather than be captured after a gun battle. With Tetsu gone, Ostuka and Kurata join forces, as Kurata is promised his real estate deal and a truce from Ostuka for giving Tetsu up. On top of that Ostuka wants Tetsu’s girl, Chiharu, for himself. Kurata assigns the task of killing Tetsu to his friend Mr. Umetani, who Tetsu is a guest of. Ken realises that Tetsu has been betrayed when he overhears the phone call between the two bosses. He attempts to explain this to Tetsu who doesn’t believe that his boss could have betrayed him. After being shot at by Kurata’s friend he finally understands his betrayal and returns to Tokyo and takes revenge on the two evil bosses. Throughout the film Tetsu maintains his honour, playing his enemies – who seem utterly devoid of it – against one another and always staying on the move.

What Film Should I Watch

The first time we see Tetsu he is standing beside a train explaining he has no weapon and does not want trouble. Despite this, the men of the rival gang beat him in an attempt to see if he is really the famous Tetsu. This is all in an attempt to force his gang out of retirement or to recruit him themselves.

Next, the title of the movie, Tokyo Drifter, appears. In the background we see a telecommunications pole and telephone wires. The montage of images as the credits roll continues along the same lines, presenting us with images of industrial Japan with bridges layered upon each other (each filled with traffic), the Olympic Stadium, a modern looking building even by today’s standards and scenes of Tokyo at night with its neon lights and populated streets. The images set the scene for a modern Japan that has lost the culture that it fought so fiercely to maintain for centuries.[1] The 1964 Olympic Games were the first to be telecast internationally. They marked an important point in Japan’s history: Japan’s hosting of the Olympics reinstated them within the world community.[2]

 

In the next scene we see strong examples of both ’family’ and ‘tradition’ when we first meet Kurata, Tetsu’s boss. We see him in his home discussing the money they owe to a local business man, Mr. Yoshi. Tetsu is extremely quiet, only speaking when spoken to, like an obedient son. Kurata shows us that he is concerned for Tetsu by asking him about the beating he got from the rival gang. Kurata’s relationship with Tetsu seems much closer than the relationship he has with his friend who sits on the couch. The man questions Kurata’s decisions while Tetsu obeys unconditionally. The man on the couch sees roughing Mr. Yoshi up as being the only way to get him to hold off on the money he is owed. Kurata refuses to do this, insisting that they must stick to the straight and narrow. Tetsu sits and listens, and without instruction decides to go to the man himself to ask him for more time. Tetsu takes the initiative to help Kurata, suggesting their relationship is closer than just gang members. The hierarchies represented here are reminiscent of the traditional patriarchal family structure of Japan pre-1945.[3]

The first specific mention of tradition and family in Tokyo Drifter is seen when Tetsu goes to bargain with Mr. Yoshi over the money Kurata owes him. In the scene Tetsu is extremely respectful to Mr. Yoshi, attempting to put his mind at ease about doing business with Kurata, a former gang leader. The obedience demonstrated by Tetsu in refusing to bow to his gangster instincts to “rough up” Mr Yoshi is in keeping with his practice of following his boss’s orders without question. This unwavering obedience is again reminiscent of the family hierarchy that was pervasive in Japan before 1945.

 

Mr. Yoshi: “And if you can’t?” [pay the money he is owed]
Tetsu: “Take my life.”
Mr. Yoshi: “So devoted to Kurata?”
Tetsu: “I wouldn’t work for a boss I don’t like; he’s a father to me.”
Mr. Yoshi: “You’re a good son to Mr. Kurata.”

 

While the concept of family is clear in this scene, by Tetsu’s own admission concerning his relationship with Kurata, traditional Japanese values are also evident in Tetsu’s offer of his own life, an example of seppuku (ritual suicide).[4] This was an important discipline of the Samurai code in Japan from 1192-1868. Honour for the Samurai during this period was far more important in many cases than death. We see that Tetsu is extremely traditional; making this offer that has rarely been seen in the last century. He also shows great trust in his boss’s word, staking his life on it.[5]

The second time we see the rival gang, who want to take Kurata’s building, we see them at their headquarters in a nightclub. The bright colours offer a stark contrast to Kurata’s home, which seems basic and traditional. We hear Western-influenced music playing in the background with bright purple engulfing the scene in the nightclub. We also see scantily clad women dancing in the club. These elements present the pervasive influence of Western culture in Japan and its move away from tradition. If we take away the fact that the characters in the scene clearly look Japanese, we would have nothing to suggest in the scene that they are in Japan. The music of the club offers a stark contrast to the traditional theme song ‘Tokyo Drifter’, which is played and sung by Chiharu and Tetsu at the bright yellow bar, where the hero spends much of his time. The implication is clear: Western influence, by virtue of its association with the ‘bad’ gang, is also bad.[6]

What-Yakuza-Movie-Should-I-Watch

Kurata, at the beginning, seems to be a loyal, honourable boss. When the rival boss, Ostuka suggests he give over Tetsu, the idea of even contemplating it is an insult in itself:

 

Mr Otsuka: “Tetsu is the thorn in both sides.”
Kurata: “An insult.”
Kurata: “I won’t sacrifice my man for an easy way out.”

 

Even the suggestion of the betrayal of his man, Tetsu, is an insult. This theme remerges later on in the scene when Tetsu is talking to the other drifter he meets, Ken, who suggests that Kurata cannot be trusted. Tetsu thinks the idea so absurd and insulting that he is ready to fight the drifter even in his wounded condition. Tetsu shows us once again his unconditional loyalty to his oyabun[7], one of the hallmarks of traditional Japanese family life.

We see Tetsu deciding to leave the group and Kurata’s side for the sake of peace, believing that his presence will only make things worse. He also leaves to allow Kurata’s murder of a secretary to be placed on him. Kurata agrees to let him go but tries to prolong his leaving by telling him to stay for food and coming up with excuses for him to stay around a little longer. This is more like the reaction a father has to a son leaving than the termination of employment.

We get a brief look at Tetsu’s humble abode as Chiharu (a female singer) goes in search of him when he leaves Tokyo. The home is extremely basic, even Spartan, with no television present or indeed any electronic applications. In fact, the home is completely devoid of any Western elements, unlike the base of the rival gang.

When Tetsu becomes a drifter and he is swiped up by the Southern boss, we see another example of tradition. We interrupt the scene towards the end of the ceremony as we see Tetsu drinking sake from the single cup, as the two sit cross-legged on the wooden floor. The ceremony marks the creation of a relationship between the two. The kobun, foster child (in this case Tetsu), pledges his allegiance to the oyabun, foster parent (the Southern boss).[8] The oyabun drinks first and leaves the rest to the kobun. The scene is extremely traditional. As Tetsu is a part of a rival gang only seeking temporary refuge, he becomes a kyakubun (‘guest member’). [9] The camera is at the same level, low on the ground, as both are equal in the scene.

Joan Mellen highlights how difficult it must be for the Yakuza hero to sustain the Samurai code, stating those who can achieve it are heroic:

 

Their rare dedication defined particularly by their determined effort to preserve proper oyabun-kobun relationships in the face of backsliding and betrayal … the degree of bravery needed to maintain the Samurai spirit against overwhelming social pressure.[10]

suzuki-Tokyo-Drifter-Yakuza Movies

If we compare this meeting to the meeting taking place later in the movie between Kurata and the rival gang, we see major differences. The men sit around a bizarre table and the roof is bathed in bright purple light; this is in no way traditional. The camera angle is low, putting them all on a high angle and giving them an ominous appearance. We again see tradition is clearly a representation of good in the movie, with Westernisation being seen as a negative influence. The betrayal of Tetsu by Kurata, is unique with regards to exposing the clear potential the oyabun-kobun relationship has with regards to the abuse of power. In this way, Suzuki has moved away from the Ninkyo films of the 1960s. The lack of giri or ninjo displayed by Kurata towards the end of the film is more a reminder of the Jitsuroku films of the 1970s than the Ninkyo films of the 1960s. [11]

At the meeting Kurata gives up Tetsu for material gain and fear of the rival gang. Kurata shows even greater dishonour by asking his friend, who Tetsu is staying with as a guest, to do the deed for him.

Another example of family can be seen in the fact that Tetsu and Chiharu are clearly in love. The problem is that Tetsu has become part of another family by joining Kurata. He knows he cannot form a family of his own with Chiharu, as Kurata his oyabun must always come first. We see how, after they go out on a date, Tetsu is asked if he would like some tea upstairs. He replies with a nod but after Chiharu leaves the taxi, he closes the door and puts his hand up against the glass as a symbolic gesture that the two cannot be together.

Chiharu, like most females in Japanese Yakuza films during the 1960s, has a very small role to play. In 1960s Yakuza films, women and children, unable to defend themselves, are often the recipients of Yakuza’s kindness. Their characters are merely devices. Joan Mellen puts this down to the fact that marriage is not endorsed by the Yakuza, as their worlds are very male-orientated in “which the most meaningful relationships are those among men.”[12] She goes on to say that during a time when it is so difficult to uphold tradition and the Samurai code, marriage is a luxury they can’t afford.

The themes and imagery around family tradition and familial relationship are important element to Tokyo Drifter and more generally in the Yakuza films of the Ninkyo era – despite being depicted often as under threat. The fact that they are often shown under treat reinforces their importance for the films of the era. As we will see in the next chapter, familial relationships and tradition are shown by subsequent generations of directors who approach Yakuza films in a very different way.

Later in Toykyo Drifter, the Southern Group are invaded by the rival gang. Tradition is ridiculed when the sword is exposed as a truly useless weapon in a contemporary world. The long sword was always regarded in early Yakuza films as an honourable weapon with the hero refusing to use a gun, preferring an honourable death instead of a dishonourable life. Suzuki, however, portrays the swordsmen who run into the building as bumbling disorganised fools. We see them rushing in and when we hear gun shots we see them retreat out of the door. The sword as a weapon is seen as outdated and a foolish choice; Tetsu uses the gun but still upholds honour and tradition. This is the first example of Suzuki portraying tradition as foolish, suggesting a compromise can be reached between traditional ways and new technologies.

One could argue that Seijun Suzuki wants to create a new Japanese cinema where guns have honour. Previously, in films by directors like Kurosawa guns were seen as dishonourable.[13] Suzuki attempts to show a different version of Japan. The scene can be interpreted as being slightly disrespectful to the old masters who went with the traditional long sword as representing honour. For example, the main character from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo would never dream of carrying a gun; however, one of the rival gangs had one[14].

When Tetsu leaves the Southern Group we catch a glimpse of a more traditional Japan as he wanders from place to place in the snow. The image of the countryside contrasts with what we saw in Tokyo, where neon lights flash and gaudy colour seems all-pervasive.

In the saloon scene we see that the Westerners are portrayed as boorish, as they crawl on stage and stumble around drunkenly. Many are dressed in their navy uniforms, perhaps a reminder of the US-Japanese treaty signed in 1960. The scene is reminiscent of an American western, as we see prostitutes and the Yakuza fight with the US sailors. Suzuki is paying homage to the traditional western.[15]

At the end of the brawl, Viper Tetsu (the rival Tetsu, not our hero) is trapped behind a pillar with nowhere to go. He is told to surrender but instead chooses to take his own life in an act close to seppuku.[16] He would prefer to die with honour than live devoid of it. In the end Viper Tetsu goes back to his tradition and honour in his last act. This act seems to shock the other onlookers but doesn’t faze Tetsu in the slightest. He continues to whistle the tune of the film, ‘Tokyo Drifter’, only pausing to hear the gun shot. Tetsu is an upholder of tradition and the feeling is created that if the roles were reversed Tetsu would have done the same thing without hesitation.

When Mr Umetani gets the phone call from Kurata to kill Tetsu, the drifter (Ken) overhears and can tell something is wrong. Even when he brings the warning, however, Tetsu refuses to believe him, trusting his boss unconditionally. After Tetsu chases the drifter for his insults and pushes over a table, we see that Tetsu realises the drifter was right, it was a trap, as he is shot at. Mr Umetani of the saloon is agonising over whether or not to kill Tetsu. While he is bound by his duty to obey, he realises that no one will benefit from Tetsu’s death.

 

“I meant to kill him but then I thought who’d profit from it?”

 

This line is a reminder that some still uphold the Samurai code in a world slowly drifitng in the opposite direction; unnecessary killing is dishonourable. When we go back to the Kurata house we see Samurai armour in the corner of the room. This is a reminder that Kurata was not always dishonourable but now it seems ironic he would have it. His betrayal is not only of Tetsu but of Chiharu as well. We get the feeling from earlier in the film that Kurata treats her like a daughter-in-law, telling Tetsu to make sure to see her before he goes.

When Tetsu returns to Tokyo to witness his betrayal with his own eyes, we see the final gun battle. In the bizarre finale Chiharu is forced to sing for Ostuka and Kurata. The room is dark, lit only by a doughnut-shaped object above. Tetsu walks down a bright white corridor wearing a white suite. He contrast with the dark suites worn by the two oyabuns and even with the room itself. As he enters the room the lights go up, more like a stage than a set of a film. After killing off all of Ostuka’s men Tetsu is left with Kurata holding a gun to his back from a distance. “A boss’s true colours?” With that Tetsu throws his gun as a distraction and catches it before it hits the ground getting a shot off in time to shot the gun out of Kurata’s hand. Ostuka attempts to shot Tetsu but is killed. Immediately the lighting changes with Tetsu’s final kill, from red to white, telling the audience that trouble is over. [17]

 

After the battle he breaks a glass with his hand in front of Kurata stating, “I’m not your man any more.” In the oyabun-kobun ceremony between the Yakuza the sake is meant to represent blood. Tetsu cuts his hand with the glass to symbolise his freedom from their blood-bound relationship. They are no longer father and son. Even after his betrayal, Tetsu is still the upholder of tradition; but Kurata can no longer live with the shame of what he has done to Tetsu, and makes a final effort to right his wrongs by committing seppuku by slitting his veins, spraying blood up in the air.

As the prominent Japanese film critic and theorist Sato Tadao points out, the final massacre that takes place at the end of Tokyo Drifter, with the bright white to contrast with the red blood, with flashing lights changing colour from purple, yellow and white all resemble the Kabuki theatre.[18] The fact that Tetsu sings the theme song makes the link between the two even clearer as Kabuki was famous for singing. These Kabuki elements blur the lines between dreams and reality.

As Earle Ernst has pointed out, the “flood of foreign ideas and inventions which swept across the country” would destroy Kabuki with the “great influx of Western influence following World War Two”.[19] Suzuki himself acknowledges the influence Kabuki theatre had on him.[20] Kabuki theatre is over four hundred centuries old. The fact that it can be seen in many of his Yakuza films highlights once again the use of tradition in the genre.

By the end of the film it is clear that Tokyo Drifter is representative of the fact that notions of tradition and family are a key force in Japanese cinema culture and have been carried through from previous genres (Chambara and Jidai-geki) into this new form. The increasing conflict between tradition and Westernisation is no longer ignored but has become entirely relevant to the conflict within the narrative and the mise-en-scène.[21]

As Robert Keser, puts it

 

The militarism of Japan’s pre-war society, the humiliation of its defeat in World War Two, and the subsequent American occupation all imprinted themselves on Suzuki’s films, either directly in the settings or indirectly in the mindsets of his people.[22]

 

Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter earned him a harsh warning from his studio, who didn’t want to release it. However, in the end they were forced to, as they had no other films to release instead. They felt that it was too highly stylised, as evidenced by the powerful blue suit worn by Tetsu, the bizarre purple lighting in scenes such as when Kurata meets the rival gang to plot Tetsu’s murder or in the final scene as it flashes different colours with each kill. The fact that the film was made in such a short time (two weeks)[23] and with a relatively small budget allowed Suzuki the freedom from producers to create this stylised epic. Many of the scripts that were being used by his studio, Nikkatsu, shared extremely similar stories in many of their Ninkyo films of the 1960s.[24] The clichéd Yakuza script he was handed allowed him to focus on making something visually unique. Suzuki always attempted to push the Yakuza genre forward: “I did want to make a new type of Nikkatsu film. To be brief, I wanted to kill off the hero.”[25] Unfortunately, he was fired by the studio system after Branded to Kill in 1967. After a subsequent law suit by Suzuki against Nikkatsu Studios for wrongful termination he was blacklisted and for the next decade worked in television. Interestingly, Suzuki disliked the Jitsuroku films of the 1970s, simply arguing “Why do you have to make a film a record of real life?”[26] He proposes a return to the entertaining Yakuza films of the 1960s. However he points out that, “You have to find new ways to shoot them or what’s the point?” Always searching for originality even at the age of 80, he shows that good direction is more important than a good script. The film Tokyo Drifter shows us that Seijun Suzuki is not only an artist, but that there is also a significant prophetic role in his highlighting of the corrupt oyabun-kobun relationship, along with the unique use of lighting and camera work in Tokyo Drifter, which would not be seen for another half a decade.




[1] “They [Yakuza films of the 1960s] reflect an agonizing sense among many Japanese of the valueless state of their culture”, Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door, p. 121.

[2] Standish, A New History of Japanese Cinema, p. 300.

[3] In 1889 the Japanese Imperial Constitution officially placed the father as the head of the household, with the oldest son coming next. This idea was very much influenced by Confucianism. The Confucian notion of honouring one’s parent in their old age was called chuukoujingi (filial piety). Under this system the head of the household had authority over all his family members; for example he could punish his child by expulsion from the family. This would erase their family records and ties, leaving them no better than outlaws or social dropouts. The family laws were changed in 1945. Seagrave, The Yamato Dynasty.

[4] Seppuku is a term that refers to ritual suicide, normally the disembowelment by oneself. This ritual is an important part of the Samurai code. Used to avoid falling into the enemy’s grasp and to escape shame, the lords at the time (1192-1868) called daimyo (feudal lord) could also order someone to commit seppuku. Warriors who had disgraced themselves were also given the right to choose it over execution in a normal manner. s.v. “seppuku,” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 09 Aug. 2010 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/535079/seppuku>

[5] “In response to the moral vacuum they perceive in modern Japan, the Yakuza films purpose a return to the values of the past, particularly to those of the samurai culture that sustained itself by absolutes. Foremost among these was a loyalty to the clan and to one’s superiors that took precedence over all other commitments.” Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door, p. 122.

[6] “In the car we see a fat man in a loud Western suit, smoking a big cigar. We immediately realize that he is the villain in the piece. The theme has been established: paradise invaded by the modern world.” Ian Buruma talking about the typical yakuza film of the 1960s, Ninkyo Eiga films; Buruma. Behind The Mask, p. 171.

[7] “The Yakuza film always recognized how difficult it is in today’s Japan to sustain the samurai code; those who are able to able to achieve it are heroic, their rare dedication defined particularly by their determined effort to preserve proper oyabun-kobun relationships in the face of backsliding and betrayal.” Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door, p. 123.

[8] Oyabun-kobun is an old Japanese hierarchical structure. The oyabun became the foster parent to the kobun (foster child). The ceremony consisted of the sharing of sake from a single cup. The sake represented their blood. In the ceremony the two sit face to face and drink together. The kobun has then sealed his total commitment to the family. All now come second to the obligations the kobun has to the Yakuza family, including his wife and children.

[9] Buruma, Behind The Mask, p. 179.

[10] Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door, p. 123.

[11] Standish, A New History of Japanese Cinema, p. 301.

[12] Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door, p. 126.

[13] Yojimbo. Dir. Akira Kuosawa, 1961.

[14] In Yojimbo, Ushitora’s younger brother comes back to the town after being away for a year. He wears flashy clothes and a handkerchief around his neck, with a bizarre haircut and carries a colt handgun. Joan Mellen sees this as a symbol of Western power and as a negative influence on Japanese society. With the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 and the gun as well, it effectively killed-off the Samurai class, as the Japanese officials needed an army to compete with Western powers. The sword-swinging Samurai became obsolete.

[15] Mark Schilling, in an interview with Suzuki, asks about the bar room fight and Suzuki replies, “That’s right—it was supposed to be like a saloon [brawl] in a Western.” Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 102.

[16] See n. 22.

[17] “Colours may represent certain emotions or character traits, or may be integral in establishing mood, but Suzuki lays no ground rules for himself, no strict aesthetics he cannot go ahead and break in the very next scene if he feels like it.” Desjardins, Outlaw Masters, p. 136.

[18] Kabuki is one of the most common and traditional forms of theatre found in Japan. It originated in the Edo period with the first performance taking place in 1603. The word comes from Ka meaning song, bu meaning dance and ki meaning skill. It is famous for its use of colour, makeup and spectacular effects. s.v. “Kabuki,Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10 Aug. 2010 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/309298/Kabuki>.

[19] Ernst, The Kabuki Theatre.

[20] “We do it differently here [in Japan]. In Kabuki they show everything at once. The interest is in seeing where and how the actors enter and exit …What we make here is a series of pictures, so the movement of any one character is secondary”. Interview with Seijun Suzuki in Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 101.

 

[22] Keser, “Climbing Mt. Suzuki.” < http://www.24fpsmagazine.com/Suzuki1.html>.

[23] Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 99.

[24] Desjardins, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, p. 137.

[25] Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 103.

[26] Ibid.

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