Throwback Thursday: The Comic-Book Sensibility of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

I’ve been reading comics now for *cough*thirty*cough* years, and in that time I always wondered what a comic-book movie would really look like. I’m not talking about superheroes—I’m talking about the static images that make up the comic page. When you read comics, you’re inferring the action between those static panels; since there is no movement in a comic, all the action takes place in your head between those frozen images. Can a film, which is all movement, convey that? For the longest time I didn’t think so. Sure, there’ve been adaptations of comics and motion comics, but nothing that really captures that.

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Tokyo Drifter teaser artwork

Well, if you’ve thought the same, look no further than the 1960s work of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. He has directed over 40 films in Tokyo, predominantly with the Nikkatsu Company, but in the 1960s he happened to do something that no other director had ever intended: he made Yakuza action films in which most of the action happened in between the moments caught on camera. This in itself is like a comic book, but for us there is the added fact that with it being a foreign language, we’re even reading the dialogue like you would in a comic. If that doesn’t intrigue you, then this might not be the film for you, but if it does, read on.

Tokyo in the ’60s was being inundated with outside culture, from London’s swinging good times to Italy’s art-house scene and even America’s fondness for Westerns. If you throw all of that into a pot, let it simmer, and give a director 25 days to shoot a film on an incredibly small budget, you end up with a lot of creativity. Due to budget and time constraints inherent in the Tokyo film system, Suzuki had to make creative sacrifices, which meant generally cutting out a lot of heavy fight scenes. This can be seen strongly in one of my favorite Yakuza films, Youth of the Beast from 1963, but it also carries into 1966’s Tokyo Drifter.

A man points a gun while standing on train tracks in a still from Tokyo Drifter

There’s a train coming, and it will be on top of him in 10 seconds.

Tokyo Drifter focuses on Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a member of a recently deactivated Yakuza clan who is trying to go straight with his former “Boss,” Kurata (Ryuji Kita)—however, another clan boss has different thoughts. After swindling Kurata and Tetsu out of a real-estate deal, Boss Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi) sends assassins after Tetsu, and the bodies start piling up. The most notable thing about Tokyo Drifter isn’t the plot; it’s the style. All the influences Suzuki was being inundated with make this an incredibly unique movie. There’s a go-go club with clear floors, mainly to show the brightly colored pipes underneath the club floor. A fight scene in a bar that is clearly lampooning American Westerns, but it doesn’t seem out of place at all in this world in which everything else is taken so seriously. There’s a nightclub that is very clearly a sound stage, with its space and sparseness, but in the final scene it becomes a work of art on the high-level of art house tradition.

A sparse nightclub set that is quite obviously a sound stage

You’d visit this nightclub, right?

I’ve mentioned a number of scenic design elements that contribute to this film, but I don’t want to leave out the character imbued into it as well. In between (or is it during?) one fight, Tetsu is seen walking through a forest whistling, a scene that feels like it was pulled straight out of a Western. Another interlude shows him singing his theme song. It’s so absurd it’s almost like a hint of surreal cinema to come. Don’t get me wrong, though—this is a very serious film. There’s no winking at the camera or breaking the fourth wall; it’s all very matter of fact. One of the main themes is that of loyalty and unquestioning allegiance. Should Tetsu be this beholden to his Boss? Should he put all of his trust in him strictly because he’s the boss? It’s a strong theme weaving through a lot of Yakuza films (a lot of Akira Kurosawa films have this as a minor theme as well), but no other director does it with the level of the absurd that Suzuki brings to the proceedings.

A wide shot of a man walking down a narrow hallway

Gorgeous scenic compositions abound in this film.

I will confess that Youth of the Beast is my personal favorite Suzuki film, but if you want to see a Tokyo pop art confection with hints of surrealism that plays like a comic book, Tokyo Drifter does not disappoint.

This film can be found on a heavily cleaned up Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, and is available on Netflix DVD’s, but not streaming. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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  1. Garrick Dietze By Garrick Dietze

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