Tokyo Drifter (1965) is a masterpiece of low budget, mass produced cinema. Despite the tight control the studio attempted to exert over the film, Director Seijun Suzuki defies the genre conventions of Japanese Yakuza films and completely ignores aesthetic tradition to create a stunning and complicated mish-mash between a B-movie and an art house film. Suzuki’s stubborn, revolutionary attitude towards film turned what was intended to be a potboiler Japanese gangster thriller into absurdist pop art. He is a film guerilla and Tokyo Drifter is one of his greatest and most powerful acts of rebellion.
Despite the incredibly colorful and lively setting, the action that follows is tragedy. Tokyo Drifter is full of sense that the old times are changing. The many Yakuza that feature in the film are depicted as anachronistic and clinging to tradition and honor in the face of a world that values neither. Otsuka, the antagonist of the film is beholden not to honor and tradition, but to money. He is the new breed of gangster as he himself points out early on in the film. The many non-diegetic inserts of an enormous dead tree echo the feeling of impending permanent change–and with it, death–that permeates the entire film. The surreal urban setting of Tokyo best represented by the frequent montages of neon signs can now be understood to stand for the destruction of the old way of life by the new. The seductive allure of wealth, bright lights, and the type of unending leisure that comes from living one’s life entirely in Jazz clubs–something apparently every character in the film does–outshines the duty, honor, and restraint of the past.
Suzuki is not lamenting the change, however. The old gangsters are by no means sympathetic, and Tetsu’s comic insistence on total loyalty to his boss almost kills him. Contrasting the seriousness of Testsu’s faithfulness to the old ways with the situations it places him reveals his devotion to be absurd. In one instance he is aided by an ally of his boss, Umetani, only to have that ally try to murder him. Umetani does not wish to kill Tetsu but does so out of unquestionable loyalty to his boss that just ordered the betrayal of the man he once called son. Suzuki exposes the incoherence of this ideology and lampoons it not just to make a statement about loyalty itself but to satirize an entire tradition of Japanese filmmaking based on characters like Tetsu. Suzuki isn’t just using surreal visuals to defy filmic conventions. The entire structure of his film is a conscious rejection of the standard dramatic form of yakuza films and chanbara.
His absurdity and rebelliousness against standard film form manifest in some extremely radical ways. Suzuki was forced to make product placement details in order to finance his films and so he openly included advertisements in the most jarring way possible. There are two separate ads for hair dryers in Tokyo Drifter. Neither of them are even remotely disguised. One includes a close-up shot of an actual advertisement for the dryers and both of them completely disrupt the scenes they are placed in. In Worholian fashion Suzuki has embraced the commercial entirely and as such has stripped it of its power. Instead of letting the corporate subtly coopt his film into an ad he openly coopts the corporate into his art.
Suzuki’s iconoclastic subversiveness elevated what should have been a B gangster movie into high art. What should have been a standard schlocky shoot-em-up became a visual meditation on the state of the B-movie form. Through Films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill Suzuki proves that with an aesthetic vision and a rebellious attitude towards everything under the sun it is still possible to make film art under the most unfavorable conditions. He is a living reminder that all cinema, even cheap B-movies, can be great cinema.