Seijun Suzuki isn’t necessarily a familiar name to many fans of foreign cinema — he was practically unknown outside of Japan for decades — but in the early 1990s, his “rediscovery” stateside made him an instant cult hero to fans of genre cinema with maverick visions. Suzuki was nothing if not a maverick, a prolific filmmaker who cranked out one assignment after another in the low-budget end of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1960s — war movies, youth dramas, roman porno and especially yakuza thrillers — on tight shooting schedules, and managed to inject them with madcap energy, inventive style and wicked wit.
Tokyo Drifter (1966) is one of Suzuki’s greatest, and by that I mean one of his wildest, weirdest and most unpredictable. Ostensibly a gangster thriller about a rival mobs locked in a war over a business venture after one outfit tries to go legit, it plays like a mix of spaghetti western and samurai melodrama relocated to the pop-art splendor of 1960s Japan, a world of swinging discotheques and sleekly austere nightclubs on the one hand, and grimy waterfronts and seedy hideouts on the other. Suzuki opens the film on the latter: a gangland beating on the docks in overexposed black and white.
It’s a rough and ready introduction. As a trumpet brays a tune that sounds like a nightclub version of a Morricone theme from a lost Sergio Leone film, the object of the abuse refuses to lift a finger while. But as the thugs leave he looks down at a toy gun, jumping out of the image as single drop of red into the monochrome landscape, and mutters “Don’t get me mad.” Suddenly Suzuki blasts the screen with comic book color and pop-art hues. The grit just turned groovy.
Matinee idol Tetsuya Watari is the Tetsu, aka Phoenix, the Tokyo drifter of the title. Looking like the young, Japanese pop-star incarnation of Alain Delon in his dark glasses and sporty suits, Tetsu is the unfailingly loyal right hand to Kurata (Ryûji Kita), a one-time yakuza godfather gone straight. Thus his refusal to fight, proof of the honor of his vow to steer clear of the rackets. It only encourages ambitious rival Otsuko (Eimei Esumi), a fast-rising thug headquartered in back of a discotheque perpetually filled with gyrating kids, to move in on Kurata.