Wednesday, February 2, 2011

to be loyal i'd even let love pass by, i'm a drifter, the man from tokyo

Tonight, I watched Tokyo Drifter (no relation to Tokyo Drift) - an interesting film from 1966 by Seijun Suzuki. Drifter is centered around young gangster Tetsu who decides to quit his criminal lifestyle. But in typical gangster film fashion, fellow mobsters won't let that happen - either Tetsu plays the game, or he's dead. The biggest mobster in Tokyo, Otsuka, threatens the honest business venture of Tetsu's reformed boss Kurata in order to pressure the duo back into their criminal ways. As a result, Tetsu decides to become a drifter - leaving Tokyo, Kurata, and his girlfriend, a nightclub singer named Chiharu, behind him. He is finally drawn back to Tokyo when he is betrayed someone who he trusted the most - and a true-to-form gangster ending plays out. He also inexplicably sings a lot throughout the movie. 
I love the highly stylized world that Tokyo Drifter exists in. Suzuki's production was a 'B' picture - and he fully relishes in this, indulging in the catchy, kitschy universe within the B-movie culture. Similar to 'Nevers' claim in Hiroshima mon amour of a city that never shuts off, Tokyo is presented as a frenzied, vibrant city chock full of gangsters and their girlfriends. Suzuki creates a Japan that belongs in a comic book of crime, similar to that of Godard's Made in USA. The opening scene of the film is a deeply contrasting black-and-white. And when I say contrast, I do mean contrast - the faces of the various gangsters are black as night, and the sky is so white it looks overexposed and is absent of any gradients. The opening scene provides an interesting association (or disassociation) with the vibrant colors of the rest of the film.
I loved the play of color in the film, as the color outfit or color setting that the scene was placed in took symbolic meaning to the storyline. The main character Tetsu wears suits that are light suit, light khaki, and white; as a man who has lived a lucky life (as he is referred to as "Tetsu of the charmed life"), his clothes remain pristine no matter the brutally violent situations he so often finds himself in. The final scene of the film - the emptied nightclub that turns from black to white once Tetsu enters the room - is an instance of such color symbolism. Surrounded by other gangsters wearing black suits, it is only Tetsu and Chiharu who are wearing clean white outfits to match the perfectly white nightclub (and the white donut-looking thing hanging above the piano), and it is no coincidence that they are the only ones who make it out alive, and they are the final characters (and dialogue exchange) that the viewer sees.
The violence is typical both of B movie features, as well as of the sixties. In a word, its unbelievable. But Tokyo Drifter uses that to its advantage. If Suzuki was able to achieve Tarantino-levels of blood and gore, we would feel sick to our stomachs at the number of people that Tetsu has killed. But since the kookiness of the film is so stressed, we are never quite sure when someone is dead (characters assumed to be dead later turn up alive, vice versa; Tetsu 'dies' in a scene but then begins to whistle casually on the floor). Because of that, the film is able to retain its lighthearted tone. 

Title: from "Tokyo Drifter" theme song

No comments: