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Just what is it that makes Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) so different, so appealing? The cherubic hero in the neat powder blue suit, who looks like he was torn out of a yakuza pop-up book? That hauntingly cornball theme song, permeating the movie in ironic nightclub variations like a slinky-dink mélange of Brecht/Weill and Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee? The immaculate dollhouse sets, every room or layout/hideout a miniature gallery of spiky close-up portraiture, quizzical conceptual furniture, MGM paint jobs, and beautifully contorted human sculptures? Editing that hopscotches through the offhand pretext of a storyline with the élan of a world-class athlete training for the Olympics—in jump-cutting? Or is it the overarching impression here that Suzuki has constructed a wonderfully buoyant Japanese discotheque time capsule crammed with a swatch, lock, or secretion of just about every brand of mod culture happening in 1966, from James Bond and Andy Warhol to Made in U.S.A and Blow-Up, and in the silk-screened process, fabricated the perfect pop art poster child?
By this time, Suzuki had established himself as the most outré action director in Japanese cinema; I would drop Japanese as a qualifier, only it took decades for anyone outside of his homeland to discover his bent genius. Emerging from the fifties as a singular specialist in the cheap, flamboyant, punishing crime movie—a small-scale master of hard-boiled abrasion, burnt-to-a-crisp inflections, flashy movement, and curiously estranged interludes—he shifted, as the sixties unfolded, to an even more action-for-art’s-sake exhibitionism, manifesting a tremendous boredom with social and psychological motivation and a corollary determination to push any situation to its breaking point.
Hence the Drifter, Tetsu, a Warhol Elvis floating among Tokyo’s finest pond scum, loyal factotum of an old-fashioned mobster who has decided to hang up his guns and go legit—until a double cross by an interloping gang sets him on the road to revenge, with a price on his head, a song in his heart, and a bullet for anybody who gets in his face.
Seven defining moments in Tokyo Drifter:
1. The bubbleheaded girlfriend of a mobster is killed in the crossfire of an ambush gone bad; her death scene, shot as if looking down from on high at the rocking chair where she’s reading her comic book, shows her body pitching forward and crumpling poignantly onto what looks like a giant, speckled Jackson Pollock canvas. (Bonus points: the suite includes mock Roman friezes on some of
2. A car is destroyed in a junkyard as the Drifter’s theme plays: first torched in a fiery metal compartment, then disgorged and crushed into a twisted, tactile sculpture out of Ed Keinholz’s studio by way of the Cadillac Ranch.
3. “Nice hair dryer.” In the dressing room of Club Aries, where the Drifter’s girlfriend, Chiharu, is singing, another performer compliments her on her drop-dead hairdo; there’s a big advertisement for a Charm Lady hair dryer plastered on the wall as Chiharu toys with what appears to be a bouffant python coiled around her demure head.
4. Chiharu is snatched by hoods in broad daylight, only the driver turns out to be the Drifter. A few seconds of the car skidding and the hoods yelling and, voilà, it’s night, and he and his girl are suddenly having a fun date in an amusement arcade.
5. While the bad guys storm the hero’s sanctuary, he takes a nonchalant stroll on a snow-flaked back lot, singing the title song. The ensuing events are a riot of spatial displacement and fractured continuity: one second the Drifter gunning them down in a cavernous building; the next walking away through the snow (this time real snow, in the wide-open outdoors); then confronting his enemy the Viper on icy train tracks, with a locomotive bearing down, staggering away, cleaning up at a washbasin as his even more badly wounded antagonist bursts in, and so forth. The entire sequence has a giddy “What just happened?” melancholia, with exposition expunged for the sake of moodiness. Yet it has a visual order quite apart from any narrative “sense”—we infer what’s going on from our knowledge of genre dynamics, but the pictorial representation radiates the mischievous abstraction of the Drifter’s absurd white shoes set against the snowy ground.
6. The warring mob bosses meet in a circular pink room, planning to bury the hatchet—in the Drifter’s back: “Tetsu’s the thorn in both our sides.” Descending the yellow staircase at Club Aries, Chiharu is taunted by one of the Otsuka gang: “Tetsu’s dead.” Is this a fantasy? She swoons, collapses, a doll the gangsters have stuck with voodoo pins.
7. Pop singer Tetsuya Watari’s soulfully blank Tetsu (Suzuki says the actor had to be literally prodded to recite his lines) striding into the finale with glazed gusto. His suit is now white, the same makeover given to the club where his girl is being held hostage (“Sing,” the thug sneers at the frozen Chiharu, or he’ll shoot the piano player); what isn’t lit by spotlight is covered in creamy acrylic blackness, except for a red baby spot that creates a lunar beacon effect on a piece of sculpture. The Drifter enters—lights, gunplay, action! Bullets fly, yakuza dive for cover, Tetsu throws away his gun, then retrieves it and dispatches the henchmen. But his old boss, Kurata, has the drop on him, so he flips his gun over his head and then catches it before it hits the floor. Walking off alone into a night filled with neon signs (Suzuki originally had a white wall and a green moon, but the studio nixed it), Tetsu could be drifting toward Swinging London or Viva Las Vegas, Fellini’s Rome or Andy’s Factory or a pristine David Hockney swimming pool in Southern California.
In the year of Tokyo Drifter, it was as if the whole world had gone Day-Glo. This was the shiny new age partway prophesied a decade earlier in London by This Is Tomorrow, the groundbreaking art exhibition whose pièce de résistance had been Richard Hamilton’s photo collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?. In it, a black-and-white bodybuilder is posed with a garish red Tootsie Pop sucker over his groin, against the backdrop of a waxy yellow living room furnished like a department store showroom—with a canned ham on the coffee table, a gigantic framed Young Romance comics cover on the wall, a recumbent burlesque queen wearing a lamp-shade hat (her breasts could be on/off switches), a pert housewife vacuuming the staircase. Outside the picture windows, an ornate old movie marquee features Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer likeness looming like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade King Kong. Just as Suzuki’s Byzantine incongruities fold familiar conventions back on themselves and create strange bedfellows, Hamilton’s scissored-and-pasted images have a perverse unity, a thrill of the forbidden hiding inside the banal.
Tokyo Drifter took pop art’s sly appetite for pastiche and appropriation and spun it into a cool web of subliminal associations, a flabbergasting assemblage of tough-guy kitsch, poetry, and self-mockery. As with Hamilton’s work, the only thing missing here from the cheerfully desolate objects and figures is their price tags—it’s a world where everything is for sale, a marketplace of the senses. The plot is just an excuse to set hit men and their ornamental paramours in motion; the drama is all in the interplay between the fluidity of appearances and static mannequin poses. As Suzuki has said, “Costume fitting is the beginning of character development.” Decor isn’t decorative, it’s quasi-existential—the embodiment of desire, the florid speech of out-of-sight objects.
After years of refining his craft in the lower depths of grind-house double bills, Suzuki—like an itchy Houdini getting so good at escaping his custom straitjacket that he’s starting to look for more challenging binds to break free from—signaled his increasing ambition and dissatisfaction with the gangster movie form with 1963’s Youth of the Beast. The following year’s Gate of Flesh suggested an Imamura social study decomposed to a raw, beautiful pulp. Story of a Prostitute, in 1965, with its astonishing amalgam of war and sex, amorality and askew romanticism, had tart new undercurrents of feeling and horror (or more precisely, the horror of feeling in an upside-down, war-torn world where numbness is the only defense); it was as if one of Sam Fuller’s black-and-white platoons had burst into a Douglas Sirk picture and dragged the overwrought principals back to a swamp of degradation, absurdity, and trip-wire pathos.
Then along came Tokyo Drifter, by all outward indications a retreat to simpler, safer genre pastures, a studio-placating cavalcade of glum gunmen tooling around in big American cars and lacquered mistresses with beehive hair and wishbone legs. But here Suzuki fashioned much more of a Guys and Molls affect, deranged musical comedy notes reinforced by the cheeky theme’s eternal recurrence: violence and dread diffracted through a glass lightly, each image resonating with a playful, high-gloss sheen. (Even in a throwaway shot from under the floor of a disco, the pipes are multicolored and there’s a glass panel under the dancers.)
Released at the height of the James Bond craze, Tokyo Drifter sends up Bond’s signature shooting-at-camera title move within the first minute, while never stooping to the cop-out of a spoof à la In Like Flint (1967), with James Coburn—the closest thing to a Suzuki leading man in the West—or The Silencers (1966), with an aging Dean Martin rat-packaged as superagent Matt Helm. The film has a passing, dismissive interest in the emergent post-Goldfinger phenomenon of the pseudo-hip action hero. Like Joseph Losey’s languid Modesty Blaise (1966, starring Antonioni darling Monica Vitti—Little Miss Ennui strikes back) no less than Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and Made in U.S.A (1966), however, it is first and foremost an aesthetic object, an intricate universe unto itself—it references the outside world (fads and fashion), but it creates its own dreamy enclave. Suzuki’s sense of visual depth, coupled with a daring, deliberate flatness, brings deep focus together with scenic decay and carefully etched cardboard characters, resulting in a series of Polaroid tableaux vivants, shuffled the way a magician handles a deck of cards.
The thing that may be most telling about Tokyo Drifter is that it doesn’t seem to belong to the past, certainly not in the way a 1920 silent film (even a Chaplin or a Griffith) would have seemed contrasted to it in 1966—something old-fashioned, antiquated, of another age. In our day, when retro is often another word for an insatiable hunger for something more authentic or more glamorous or more risky than what the dominant culture affords, the Drifter finds fellow travelers in the likes of Mad Men and the late Amy Winehouse (who could have been auditioning to be house chanteuse at Club Aries). Fellow travelers, that is, playing catch-up with a forty-five-year-old ghost who is still years more advanced than any of them; Suzuki’s golden past is still fresher, more forward-looking than our timid, depleted pop present.
To call Suzuki a global filmmaker and emphasize the internationalist character of his work is not to say that he was emulating Hollywood or European mannerisms, or borrowing directly from pop art, for that matter. It is more accurate to say he picked up the zeitgeist and ran with it—Tokyo Drifter was an engraved invitation to the 24-7 party of the sixties, the flip side of the assassinations and napalm and anguish, indulging the pop love of surfaces and artifacts over Freudian anxieties or Marxian imperatives. It didn’t feed off just art but the grammar of advertising—in other words, the nexus of freedom and manipulation that made the era so seductive and so unstable. And in doing that, it made borders seem passé, the province of the provincial.
Compared with Branded to Kill, the following year’s black-and-white masterpiece, which was both Suzuki’s apotheosis and his downfall (afterward, the Nikkatsu studio finally fired him, for incoherence/insubordination, though his insubordination was perfectly coherent as such), Tokyo Drifter may seem a very lightweight movie indeed. Branded to Kill is a full-on nightmare vision, while Tokyo Drifter is more in the bittersweet range. But that only licensed Suzuki to take a routine assignment and experiment all over the place, probing how much could be done inside the frame, the amount of energy that could be brought to bear on the entropy of custom. Formulating an insistent tension between beauty and the void, Suzuki here couches it in the commercial language of the day, as well as in the irreverence and wit and love of mass modernity of the pop gate-crashers. That Tokyo Drifter came out the same year as the Beatles’ Revolver is somehow fitting; that Suzuki’s instincts, for all their eye-popping moxie and satiric glamour, had the commercial appeal of Yoko Ono is no less so.
Howard Hampton has written for Film Comment, Artforum, and numerous other publications. His 2007 collection Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses contains an essay on Seijun Suzuki’s career.