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Tetsuya Watari

Japanese Gangster Movie Freakout!

Tokyo Drifter

The explosion of Japanese gangster films in the 1960s was the great genre freakout of the era, and the rest of the world missed out on it for decades. While films by Kurosawa andKobayashi and Naruse played film festivals and art cinemas, and those by Oshima andImamura drove the Japanese New Wave, the domestic industry was turning out samurai movies and erotic dramas—which spawned the even more disreputable “pink films”—and colorful, high-energy gangster films. Where the samurai movie as a type had some cachet and international exposure, thanks to a decades-long history and a sense of being “the Japanese western,” the gangster movie was modern, urban, and immediate—a pop-culture response to economic anxiety and youth culture. At first these films failed to break out of the Asian market, either as arthouse curiosities or commercial genre artifacts. They were practically unknown in the west until the stateside “rediscovery” of Seijun Suzuki in the 1990s led fans to further exploration in the genre.

Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of the nation’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. They were shot quickly and cheaply, cast from a stock company of actors who would become genre icons (Jo Shishido, Testsuya Watari, Akira Kobayashi), and driven by the energy and anxiety and nihilism of the “sun tribe” genre of youth-gone-wild movies—Japan’s answer to the teen-rebel drama—that also proliferated in sixties. No one at Nikkatsu topped the insanely prolific Seijun Suzuki.

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DVD/Blu-ray: Tokyo Drifter

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.

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Available on Amazon:
Tokyo Drifter (DVD)
Tokyo Drifter (Blu-ray)