Seijun Suzuki made his name in Japan with hard-boiled B-crime films during the 1950s. By the 1960s, he took traditional Yakuza stories and juxtaposed them with an extreme Andy Warhol-esque pop art look that gleefully pushed genre conventions. He started to break away from convention with Youth of the Beast (1963) and then fused the sensibilities of Samuel Fuller with the aesthetics of Douglas Sirk with Story of a Prostitute (1965). Tokyo Drifter (1966) is a film that eschews narrative logic for playful abstraction and the results are quite unlike anything at the time or since.
Tetsuya Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) is a Japanese gangster trying to lead an honest life as the syndicate he belonged to dissolved itself and went legit. The only problem is that they borrowed money from their rival – Yoshii – and now they’ve come to collect. In the film’s striking washed out black and white prologue, Tetsu is beaten up by the Yoshii syndicate when he refuses to work for them, which, as it turns out, is a test to see if he’s actually gone legit. Out of loyalty to his former bosses, Tetsu decides to help him pay off the debt that is owed. However, complications arise when yet another rival syndicate kills Yoshii and takes over collecting the debt.
Tokyo Drifter has a striking ‘60s pop art look with a nightclub’s walls saturated in purple; a scene with a singer accompanied by a piano in a yellow room and is visited by a man in a red suit, while phones in various rooms in various places are primary colors. These vivid contrasts in color, coupled with the hep jazz soundtrack, make for a very unusual gangster film. Suzuki uses color and composition of the widescreen frame masterfully, like how he places his actors in a given frame.
Tetsuya Watari’s Tetsu is the epitome of ‘60s mod culture cool with his stylish suits, good looks and fashionable existential angst. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty good with a gun. The pop art style that influenced Tokyo Drifter can also be seen in films like Modesty Blaise (1966) and In Like Flint (1967) but Suzuki’s film fearlessly pushes genre conventions further than either of these examples as he experimented with color and composition to a fascinating degree.