Recently, I had a chance to see Seijun Suzuki's classic stylized thriller Tokyo Drifter at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum as they prepared to show this and other films directed by Mr. Suzuki as part of a Seijun Suzuki Retrospective film series. You can see Tokyo Drifter at the Northwest Film Form's Capitol Hill theaters on Wednesday May 4th at 7:30pm.
This film is set in Tokyo's Yakuza crime scene during the 1960's and finds a former boss and his enforcer trying to live a legitimate life but quickly discover that this is no easy task. After an altercation with a rival gang, the enforcer (Tetsuya Watari) is sent away to avoid being assassinated although he finds danger lurking in every town he comes across. Sooner or later he must return to face the evil that awaits him so he can set things right.
The first thing you will notice about this film is the very distinct and unique visual style that Mr. Suzuki has always been known for and has influenced so many film makers since. He has a very sharp eye and an ability to frame shots perfectly, getting the most out of every scene which is pretty fantastic considering this film was made in 1966. A lot of his techniques are still used today and I feel like he has had a very big influence on Quentin Tarantino's equally bold visual style. At the time this movie was made, Tetsuya Watari was a very popular singer and actor so Suzuki used this to his advantage by having his lead actor sing the title song as well as participating in some very odd musical numbers that somehow work within the context of the film.
With a run time of only one hour and 22 minutes, Suzuki is able to avoid having the story become too long and drawn out. He knows exactly how to let the story play out with a very good mix of action, comedy, and a little bit of drama, or maybe melodrama is a better term, to keep things moving along at a nice pace. Watari plays his weary enforcer about as straight as one possibly could which adds another interesting element to the story telling since there are so many odd moments and strange happenings that take place. Through all the madness, the man known as "Phoenix" is the grounded centerpiece that holds everything together.
Tokyo Drifter is considered a classic piece of film making and, after seeing it for the first time, I can definitely see why. Seijun Suzuki set a standard for cinema that is still upheld and honored today by some of the best directors and cinematographers in the business. If you want to see a movie that was visually stunning, highly entertaining, and years ahead of it's time, this might be one of the best examples you will ever find.
From Northwest Film Forum:
Japanese film director Seijun Suzuki began his career making increasingly outrageous B movies for Nikkatsu Studios in the 1950s and 1960s (he was eventually fired for his stylistic excesses). More than ten years later, he reinvented himself as an independent filmmaker with a uniquely eccentric vision. He remains a cult figure outside of Japan and his influence can be seen in the work of directors as diverse as Jim Jarmusch, Baz Luhrmann, and Quentin Tarantino.
The Seijun Suzuki Retrospective is part of a national tour of Suzuki's work accompanied by Smithsonian curator Tom Vick's book, Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, which is the first book-length study of his work in English. The touring retrospective is co-organized with the Japan Foundation and presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves. Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion Cinema are proud to be partnering on bringing these films to Seattle, many of them on 35mm film prints.