Monday, April 30, 2007

The 21st century will not belong to China

Says Guy Sorman. Nothing earth shatteringly new here, several of the points can be found in Liverputty's Ancient History, but it's a great article, nonetheless, complete with heart-breaking accounts of the AIDS epidemic, the treatment of dissident groups & peasants, the abominable one child policy and the looming "future" of Hong Kong. The U.S. should be thankful that our problems pale in comparison to China's.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Just because it's called Target doesn't mean you're supposed to shoot

Yeah….luckily, Rebecca decided to go to Walmart instead this afternoon. This Target is about a mile from our house, and we go once or twice a week.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rice Sniffers Anonymous

For years this issue has been swept under the rug - dismissed as just Hanada's problem. But it's time to shine the light of intervention on an addiction that affects between 1 and 100% of all households. Don't be an enabler, report your special loved-one today.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

James Bond on personal finances and retirement....

and on work & play...from Moonraker

It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant – elastic office hours from around ten to six; lunch, generally in the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; week-ends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.

He took no holidays, but was generally given a fortnight’s leave at the end of each assignment – in addition to any sick leave that might be necessary. He earned £1,500 a year, the salary of a Principal Officer in the Civil Service, and he had a thousand a year free of tax of his own. When he was on a job he could spend as much as he liked, so for the other months of the year he could live very well on his £2,000 a year net.

He had a small but comfortable flat off Kings Road, an elderly Scottish housekeeper – a treasure called May – and a 1930 4 ½ litre Bentley coupe, supercharged, which he kept expertly tuned so that he could do a hundred when he wanted to.

On these things he spent all his money and it was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.

Monday, April 23, 2007

This poster reminds me of the one for Donovan's Reef.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

James Bond on American cars...

or an ode to the Cord

from Live & Let Die (1954)

Bond liked fast cars and he liked driving them. Most American cars bored him. They lacked personality and the patina of individual craftsmanship that European cars have. They were just ‘vehicles’, similar in shape and in colour, and even in the tone of their horns. Designed to serve for a year and then be turned in in part exchange for next year’s model. All the fun of driving had been taken out of them with the abolition of a gear-change, with hydraulic-assisted steering and spongy suspension. All effort had been smoothed away and all of that close contact with the machine and the road that extracts skill and nerve from the European driver. To Bond, American cars were just beetle-shaped Dodgems in which you motored along with one hand on the wheel, the radio full on, and the power-operated windows closed to keep out the draughts.

But Leiter had got hold of an old Cord, one of the few American cars with a personality, and it cheered Bond to climb into the low-hung saloon, to hear the solid bite of the gears and the masculine tone of the wide exhaust. Fifteen years old, he reflected, yet still one of the most modern-looking cars in the world.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Afraid to Die (1960)

Don't look for the quirky mod stylishness of Suzuki here. Afraid to Die is a straight forward noir story with a few remarkable twists, not the least of which is the choice of lead actor: Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's most famous novelists, best known for slicing his belly open in the Japanese Defense Force HQ in 1970. But in this film, he is afraid to die. He teams up with Japanese New Wave directing sensation, Yasuzo Masumura (Charlie Parsley has previously mentioned two of Masumura's other films: Blind Beast and Hanzo 2: The Snare.) to create this hard hitting depiction of the messed up yakuza underworld.

Takeo Asahina (Yukio Mishima) is torn up inside. He’s a gangster without a gang. Part of him wants to remain a wise guy because that was the way he was raised and it is all he knows, but a smaller nagging part of him wants to get out of the racket, go straight and all that business. It is bad enough that he can’t commit to either path, but what makes it worse is that he’s not a particularly effective gangster. He just spent three years in the pen for stabbing rival mob boss Sagara in a failed assassination attempt. He screwed that up, but hey, it happens sometimes, right? His problem is that he pretty much screws up everything. In short: Takeo is a screw up.

Yusaku Sagara (Jun Negami) is the rival crime boss with a gimp leg he got on account of Takeo. He’s dead set on seeing Takeo dead. Sagara tries to have Takeo whacked in prison, but that fails. He knows it is a matter of kill or be killed so he sends for the asthmatic killer from Hokkaido (see below) to take care of his problem. Beyond that his gang stole some bad cancer drugs from a pharmaceutical company so they can peddle it to unsuspecting pharmacists.

Gohei (Takashi Shimura) is Takeo’s uncle. He’s an old style gangster with the tattoos to prove it. He knows the ways of the code and winces when he sees his nephew dilly-dallying around, talking tough but not acting it. When Takeo says he wants to make some money so he can rebuild the gang and then go after Sagara, Gohei slaps him silly. “First you attack Sagara, then the rest will fall into place!” He then gives Takeo a pistol and tells him to kill Sagara that night.

Aikawa (Eiji Funakoshi) is Takeo’s brother and he’s got other ideas than Gohei. His dad sent him to law school so that he could escape the criminal life. He’s somewhat reticent to cut ties to the lifestyle, just as Takeo is, but pines for a normal life nonetheless. He’s in love with a geeky pharmacist gal who encourages him to leave Tokyo and relocate in Osaka. Takeo calls Aikawa “Brainwave” because of his education. He enjoys the mechanical monkey because it reminds him of himself.

Masako (Yoshie Mizutani) is Takeo’s squeeze who, ahem, waited for him while he was in prison. She’s a nightclub performer who sings a raunchy song about bananas, which, I think might be an accurate reflection of her worldview. She's not much of a singer and not particularly sexy, so it is a relief when Takeo, just out of prison, almost immediately dumps her. "Almost" meaning after sex, of course. He does it for her own good and his, knowing that Sagara might use her to get to him. Anyway, as it turns out, the fling she had been having since Takeo's incarceration, resulted soon after in her pregnancy.

Yoshie Koizumi (Ayako Wakao) is a good girl trying to support herself and her brother (no, she does not resort to prostitution). After Takeo breaks up with Masako, he falls in love with Yoshie. To express his affection he rapes her. Afterwards, he says: “Forgive me…it's just that I like you...” What a guy, that Takeo. She does have feelings for him and eventually bears his child. In case the audience is not already aware that Takeo is a giant ass, he spends a lot of screen time trying to convince (and later trick) Yoshie into having an abortion, fearing the baby might make them more vulnerable to enemy yakuza. He also slaps her around quite a bit. Yet, like a mobster’s wife, she accepts his abuse and remains steadfast in her pursuit to bring out the good in him.

Shoichi Koizumi (shown here in black and blue) is Yoshie’s brother. He’s a commie, but otherwise a decent fellow. He attends labor rallies and can't seem to stay out of trouble, even when he doesn't ask for it. He despises Takeo because of his yakuza lifestyle. Shoichi pays a heavy price for Takeo’s indecision.

Masa (Shigeru Kôyama) is the highlight of the picture. He’s the asthmatic hitman called in from Hokkaido to whack Takeo. In this picture, he's buying some ephedrine, adrenaline and a 2cc hypodermic for his chronic cough. Although the most menacing of the characters, he’s still pretty funny and not a little pathetic. Viewers may remember Shigeru from such gems as Kill! and Samurai Rebellion. He's got a knack for playing worms. Masa goes through life maintaining an arrogant and sinister smirk in between coughs.

The yakuza comes across as looking pretty absurd in this picture, in a manner similar to the gang in Ghost Dog, which is to say that while maintaining some capacity for violence, they are still only shadows of their former selves, gangsters in decline. When Takashi Shimura’s character, Gohei, talks about yakuza life in his day, when the code guided things, the image is romantic. After watching Takeo operate, however, it becomes evident that if the romantic days ever existed, they are over now. That’s not to suggest that they are no longer rotten. They’ll sell poison for profit, beat and rape women, kidnap kids and, of course, try to whack each other out of existence.

A few other notes: Masumura is best known for such avante-garde classics as Giants and Toys (1958) and Blind Beast (1969), the latter being a pretty over the top bizarre surrealistic nightmare. He tones it down a few notches in Afraid To Die. He doesn’t shy away from awkward moments of ugliness, but he also doesn’t make a spectacle of them either. As mentioned before, Afraid To Die is directed in a straightforward manner with a few remarkable elements: besides Mishima, there's an audaciously bungled assassination attempt in the beginning and an excessive death scene on an escalator at the end that form unique bookends to an otherwise generic, though well told, story. The often cold sensibilities regarding some dispicable acts make Afraid To Die stand out in the mind.

Yukio Mishima may have been a great writer, but he was a third rate actor. I’m tempted to say he holds his own in Afraid to Die, but then, not being Japanese, I doubt I’m able to pick up on how awkward some of his mannerisms are. This was his first of four acting appearances, and there are times when it seems evident that he does not know where to set his eyes in relation to the camera. And some of his manners and body language come across and contrived. When he first meets Yoshie and amiably pats her on the shoulder, one can imagine about 80% of the Japanese women watching the film thinking “what the hell did he just do?” as such contact is rare in Japanese society. I suspect Mishima was more concerned portraying American icons like James Dean or Marlon Brando than portraying a troubled yakuza flunky. But who knows, perhaps that was called for in the script.

I liken Mishima’s presence in the film to Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. On the one hand, Dylan is a major cultural icon that is certainly a box office curio, but on the other hand, he cannot act. There is something strangely magnetic about him when he is on screen, but part of that magnetism includes the train wreck factor. He’s a star, but not an actor star. And neither is Mishima. One can imagine that Mishima was a nuisance for Masumura to accommodate in the same way that Dylan was for Peckinpah, with the exception that, in Afraid To Die, Mishima was the lead.

Afraid To Die has some nice location shooting, showing a shopping district called Peace Market as well as landmarks like the (then new) Olympic Arena. It is not a big budget endeavor, but it is realistic. Masumura's depiction of Tokyo, like his depiction of the yakuza, is unapologetic. He's unafraid to show its filth and grime.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Another yakuza poster

Expect to see more posters over the next couple of weeks. They are easy to post and are cool and colorful to look at.

Incidentally, this week, in yakuza oriented news, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot by a yakuza member. The mayor is in critical condition. The motive for the shooting was not clear.

UPDATE: Looks like the mayor did not make it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nikkatsu Action Lounge

Lots of fun Nikkatsu materials at this site. Be sure to check out the poster galleries.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Black Tight Killers (1966)

Director Yasuharu Hasebe says in an interview included on the DVD that, although not specifically influenced by western directors, this movie was nevertheless a response to the Bond-mania that was sweeping the world. The latter part of that observation is pretty evident after watching Black Tight Killers, as it seems a parody of a parody, ala Austin Powers, steeped in 60’s goofiness, bright colors, sex and still more goofiness. As with Seijun Suzuki’s work around this time, every nefarious gang has a dance club with lots of young kids bouncing up and down and doing the twist. This film really flaunts its go-go gals, who wear, if you haven't guessed, black tights and go-go wigs. But they will be dealt with later….and I do mean “dealt”.

First, a few notes about the story: there are six spoilers below…six beautiful, yet sinister pussy-cat-like spoilers, clad tights. More on them later.

The film opens by showing the hero, a war photographer named Hondo (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of a firefight in Vietnam getting shots of colorful candy-like explosions posing, Nikkatsu-style, as something more violent. Thus Hondo’s credentials as an adventurer are firmly battle-tested and established, which is a good thing, too, because how else would we believe that he can wrestle himself free from Octopus Pot? That’s a decisive and deadly move when employed by one of the Black Tight Killers…. whom I will lavish attention on momentarily.

Anyway, on his return to Tokyo, Hondo falls for a stewardess named Yoriko (Chieko Matsubara, also in Tokyo Drifter) who happens to be the daughter of a now deceased man who squirreled away a stash of gold during the war so that the movie would have some sort of plot. None of this is known at the time, of course, but during Hondo’s first dinner with Yoriko, sinister things start happening. Yoriko notices that she is being followed. The man that is following her tries to whisk her away when Hondo’s attention is diverted. Unfortunately, for the kidnapper, three Black Tight Killers descend on him in a in a dark alley. They do a number on his face and leave him there, dead.

Hondo manages to save Yoriko, temporarily, but she is kidnapped again and he spends the better part of the movie trying to find her. He seeks help from an American journalist friend named Pedu or Peter (aka Lopez). Also, along the way, he has several encounters with the elusive Black Tight Killers. The plot thickens and gets tedious as various allies reveal themselves as traitors, and the Black Tight Killers go from being unnerving predators to devoted heroines.
The Black Tight Killers are exquisitely dressed in form hugging uniforms with exposed belly-buttonless midriffs. Who trained them? I’m sure the film said, but it must have been in that hazy middle period of the picture when I quit trying to decipher some of the hard to read subtitles. The important thing is that they were trained. Each girl is skilled in the use of razor sharp 45s that invariably miss the target (when that target is Hondo) only to stick menacingly in the wall. They are also skilled in the use or razor sharp tape measures that they use to slash Hondo’s tie to within an inch of its life. They chew blinding bubble gum, which they can spit in the eye of their prey, should such action be necessary. But their deadliest weapon seems to be the inner thigh. A Black Tight Killer will lure her victim to this trap by playing cold and vulnerable, at first, then audaciously horny. By the time the victim is seduced into range, crunch! Octopus Pot is initiated and the victim only has moments to live! But when killing is not their aim, they ably apprehend their man and restrain him in a golden steambox with a busty neck rest in order to interrogate him.

When the girls switch to your side, though, you won’t find more cooperative, self-sacrificing allies. If you are captured by the real enemy, you could have no better fortune than being tied up with one of these ladies, especially if the real enemy leaves the Black Tight Killer's inner thighs unrestrained. Once she gets the guard’s cranium between her adductor mangus and adductor longus and she constricts her gracilis, the only remaining business is to determine what type of flowers to send to the poor sap’s funeral. Next, she will probably signal another Black Tight Killer who's waiting on a nearby rooftop with some explosive golfballs she's itching to chip into the enemy's window. And where there is a Black Tight Killer, a getaway car is usually not far away.

Unfortunately these girls are not trained well enough. The Black Tight Killers can and do kill, but the nomenclature is somewhat misleading as they are far more adept at getting killed. Only one-in-six Black Tight Killers is denied a death scene and that is not because she escapes death. Instead, she dies in a fiery car crash and isn’t afforded that moment where she can say something tender to Hondo, like the rest of the gals.

Because, deep down, past the intimidating Black Tights and the deadly inner thighs, these girls are essentially pussycats craving the same thing: affection. They were trained to kill because they never met the right man. And Hondo is the right man.

So let's take a look at their final tender moments:

Black Tight Killer #1

Black Tight Killer #2

Black Tight Killer #3

Black Tight Killer #4

Black Tight Killer #5

Black Tight Killer #6

The Back Tight Killers die at such regular intervals that you can virtually set your watch by them. At one point, the last remaining Black Tight Killer laments: "I'm the last one left" and the audience knows that the film is exactly one Black Tight Killer from the end. The total running time of the film is 87 minutes – or, 6 Black Tight Killers. If you run to the store, you can tell the spouse that you will return in about three Black Tight Killers. So on and so forth…..

A not so recent environmental study has concluded that unless proper laws are enacted and people change their wasteful habits, the Black Tight Killer will be extinct by the end of 1966. We should have listened!
Black Tight Killers offers so much on the campy 60s sexploitation scale that it should not be missed by fans of that type of fare. With obvious influence from Goldfinger, there is an erotic dance of two gold gilted figures that is...fascinating. There is also an echo of From Russia With Love when Hondo manages to down an enemy chopper with a bamboo bazooka. (I don’t remember Q giving Bond a standard issue bamboo bazooka, but I’ll let the comparison stand.) But this film goes beyond Bond and shows yet another ingenious Black Tight Killer device: the bra bomb. I’m no hero, but if one of these was tossed in a room, I would not hesitate to jump on it….for the safety of my fellow man, of course. But I’m getting off track…

At the end of the adventure, Yoriko, after being kidnapped two or three times, stripped to her skivvies once or twice and given the Maaco treatment, is finally free to develop her relationship with Hondo. No doubt relieved that the yakuza is no longer after the treasure and that all of the Black Tight Killers have spent themselves into oblivion, Yoriko asks Hondo, with a tinge of jealousy and curiosity, if he slept with one of those girls. Hondo, recalling that delicious fear being at the mercy of Octopus Pot, admits he shagged one of them rotten. Yoriko, who hitherto could not have thrown a punch to save her life, literally, smack him square on the nose. All is forgiven as the titles roll across the screen.

A lot of what I said about Tokyo Drifter could be applied to Black Tight Killers. Hasebe worked as an assistant director to Suzuki before making this first feature film. Suzuki's influence shows. That this particular film pleased the suits at Nikkatsu while simultaneous efforts by Suzuki were leading him into exile, is something I do not fully understand. It is a curious passing of the baton. Hasebe would wean himself away from this style, but in Black Tight Killers he has all that same playfulness of Suzuki, if not all the smooth edges. Several of his sequences are inspired, the most notable being a short dream sequence that is reminiscent of pink elephants on parade. But ultimately, Hasebe does not quite achieve the sureness of Suzuki.

Movies such as this and Tokyo Drifter are good ornaments for a room if you are entertaining guests. Black Tight Killers is pleasant enough to watch without interruption, but just a pleasant with interruption since it always has something colorful and alluring on the screen, and since it does not spend much time making an airtight intriguing plot, it does not necessarily matter what happened before or after. It naturally lends itself to casual viewing. Best served with dried fish snacks and Asahi beer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Random Post Tuesday

I work in tech support, and after a 12-hour day, this one is a gem.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

by Jeffrey Hill

Flowers that to dream
say goodbye
will wither
and the dreams will die.
If I die, I’ll die like a man.
To be loyal, I’d even let
love pass by.
I’m a drifter,
the Man from Tokyo…

The film opens in stark black & white along some tracks adjacent to the industrial harbor. Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is walking the length of a several cars on a dormant train – a lonely trumpet wails a tune the audience will be intimately familiar with by the end of picture. He reaches the caboose where we see another figure, rival gunman Shooting Star, waiting at the end on the other side:

Tetsu: Kill me! Get it over with!
Shooting Star: Tetsu, why don’t you use the Colt that’s in your pocket? Why? A disgrace to the Kurata Group!
Tetsu: I’m not a gangster anymore. Boss disbanded our group. My rule’s to do as he does.
Shooting Star: OK, we’ll see about that!

Shooting Star frisks Tetsu, who offers no resistance even as Star’s entourage of three men marches him down to the pier where they beat the snot out of him. There is a car nearby with two men in the back seat, watching the scene. One man is Okatsu, a crime boss, the other is one of his higher-up underlings:

Underling: It looks like Tetsu’s lost his nerve.
Okatsu: No. He turned down becoming my henchman. Says he’s going straight, so...
Underling: He’s too quiet.
Okatsu: (Close-up of his nighttime sunglasses) Not for long.

The film cuts to Tetsu in a technicolor yellow blazer in a black void of a background firing his pistol in various directions.

Okatsu: He’s a hurricane if things don’t work out after three tries. He’ll get tough again....

The beating goes on for a bit, before they leave Tetsu on a filthy bank between the railroad and the water. When he comes to, he waddles to one of the trains and pants calmly: “I’m asking it. This is the third time. Don’t make me get mad…"The title, Tôkyô nagaremono, bursts in full green color in front of a copper dawn sky with a still young Tokyo Tower jetting past the rising sun. The song, no longer just a mournful trumpet, plays complete with Hawaiin guitar and crooning words, while scenes of bustling Tokyo are flashed in succession, primarily conduits of transportation. Seijun Suzuki pulls no punches and lets you know right off that bat that you are in for a playful 83 minute ride. And it centers around one man from Tokyo.

Tetsu is a badass. He sports a powder blue suit with high-water britches and white dress shoes, but don’t let that confuse you….he is still a badass. Why is that? Well, for one, he has mastered the “toss-gun-serpentine-retrieve-gun-and-fire” technique. He’s also mastered the “toss-gun-away-to-show-enemy-you-give-up-then-dive-for-gun-and-shoot-confused-enemy” technique. These amazing moves from the Nikkatsu School must be seen to be disbelieved. Tetsu’s got a whole satchel full of such tricks. If you happen to get the drop on Tetsu, and he relinquishes his firearm voluntarily, then you can bet that you only have minutes left to live. And if you are trying to put one over on Tetsu, don't be surprised if Tetsu is already putting one over on you! Such is the way of Tetsu.

He has a keen sense of loyalty towards his boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita). His devotion is so strong that it prevents him from embracing the affections of his fiancé, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), preferring instead to give her his cold shoulder. He doesn’t necessarily want it to be that way, but at first it’s to protect his boss, and then it is because a drifter must walk alone. And, halfway into the movie, that is what Tetsu is: a drifter….the man from Tokyo. He even wrote a song about it.

You see, bossman Kurata wants to go straight and Tetsu wants to follow him, but Otsaku (Hideaki Esumi), boss of the rival Tokyo group can’t get behind that type of thinking. Otsaku can see through his sunglasses that Tetsu is a hindrance to his plans to expand his turf over the Kurata group. He wants the building that Kurata has and he knows his enemy is waist deep in debt, owing 8 million yen on it to the mortgage lender, Yoshii. Tetsu is doing his darnedest to get the money, though he can only wrangle 3 million yen and a promissory note. Otsaku devises a few under-handed moves to trick Yoshii into letting him take over the mortgage so that he can own the building. Those under-handed moves consist of kidnapping and extortion and shooting a man in the back.

Following this? Well, don’t bother. Five minutes after the movie is over you won’t remember any of the story and it will not matter. It’s not that the story is complex, but that it really has nothing to do with enjoying the picture. The important thing is that Tetsu is loyal to his boss, but that loyalty is ultimately not returned. Tetsu is forced into exile by an agreement between Kurata and Otsaku. Since Tetsu is an obstacle to the peaceful co-existence between the two groups, his exile is predictable (in case you didn’t get it from title). Okay, fair enough. Tetsu understands that you often have to take one for the team every now and then. And boss Kurata is obviously fond of his strongest and most loyal hand. But rival boss Otsaku is not trustworthy and sends his main hit man, Viper, to whack Tetsu. Okay, now back up: Tetsu’s long time rival is Shooting Star (Hideaki Nitani), who used to be Otsaku’s main hit man. But Shooting Star was betrayed by Otsaku and chose to become a master-less drifter, himself – in control of his own fate. Viper replaces Shooting Star…still with me? Don’t worry. The main thing is that Tetsu has a baby blue suit in the first half of the picture, then a tan suit, and then a cream colored suit for the finale. He looks great and tends to match whatever room he’s in.

His fiancé, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) ain’t so bad herself. She sings at the posh Club Aruru, owned by Kurata. It’s a huge place with ridiculously little seating for customers – not something you see in Tokyo much and certainly a drain on Kurata’s troubled finances. In the center of the room some columns stretch up but cannot reach the high ceiling – in one sector of the vast open space, a large statue of a human figure holds up a large postmodern donut that changes colors with the atmospheric mood in the room. When it’s white: things are tense. When it is yellow, that usually means Chiharu is doing a lovely rendition of some song, generally the theme song about the drifter: the man from Tokyo, written and performed numerously by Tetsuya Watari. Or, it means there is some kissing going on. Or some loneliness is happening. Actually, in hindsite, the donut seems to change colors arbitrarily, even when it turns red. Suzuki's flourishes tend not to have a deeper meaning - gorgeous as they sometime are..

By all accounts, Chiharu is a fine figure of a woman and it is somewhat of a mystery that Tetsu is so cold to her. He’s polite and at times seems interested in her, but time after time he rebuffs her advances with nary a shrug of the shoulders. He’s certainly got some of the yakuza loyalty/code dilemmas that plagued so many of Nikkatsu’s young hit men. And when he hits the rails north out of Tokyo, he knows that it will be no place for a woman. It’s going to be rough and why put the woman he loves (?) in the middle of it? That he could toss her aside like his smoldering fag and cavalierly drift on, whistling the theme song he wrote for himself, is brow raising, indeed.

The song says it all. It doesn’t matter that it says it all in Japanese, because the tune, itself, spells it out clearly enough, whether through the sad keys of a piano or the lonesome whistle of Tetsu (who is not so lonesome that his back-up music is ever out of earshot) or the tear stained voice of Chiharu. It is a durable song, and it has to be in order to stand up to as many reditions as does. It was written by Tetsuya Watari, who, prior to this debut as a lead, was a popular singer. The Nikkatsu executives assigned Suzuki to make him a star with this movie. And in case you are wondering, the specific words are translated at various points in the film. When Chihara sings the song, it is from the perspective of the woman who fell for the man from Tokyo:

Where is he, the vagabond?
Always drifting, always solo.
Where will he be tomorrow?
The wind, his girl may know
The drifter,

the man from Tokyo.

Drifting, drifting on and on
til memories of Tokyo are gone.

The problem with drifting, as Tetsu soon learns, is that a meaning is attached to his presence no matter where he goes. Going north to some unspecified town, he is met by the South Group, who thinks Kurata sent a Tokyo man to help them with their turf battles against the North Group (who is backed by Okatsu). Upon learning that Tetsu is not there to aid in the fight, the leader of the South Group worries that the North Group, making the same mistake about Tetsu’s presence, will ratchet up their own forces with more Tokyo men (they already have a few, backed by Okatsu). The only solution is for Tetsu to keep drifting.

The montage of Japanese locations that follow indicate that Tetsu does bounce around from one island to another, causing a furor wherever he shows up, not just for the local gangs (because his presence always implies Tokyo meddling), but for Kurata back home in Tokyo. To complicate matters, Tetsu is being continually hunted by Viper, who is obsessed with whacking Tetsu to dispel the notion that he leads a charmed life. Fortunately, for Tetsu, Shooting Star seems to have his back, guardian angel style, and every time it looks like Viper is going to move in for the kill, Tetsu manages to fend him off, first by shooting his hand, then by blinding Viper with a pot of boiling water. When Tetsu is wounded, Shooting Star happens to show up and mend him.

Tetsu eventually finds himself in Sasebo, towards the southern end of Kyushu, under the protection of Kurata ally Umitani, proprietor of the Saloon Western, a hang out for American sailors and various yakuza punks. This setting gives Suzuki a chance to have a knockdown blow-out western style saloon brawl which serves to galvanize the friendship between Shooting Star and Tetsu, and, to a lesser extent, Umitani. The brawl also demonstrates the lightweight fragility of saloon furniture.

Why would Suzuki care to involve Umitani into this circle of camaraderie? After all, the audience is already familiar with the uneasy friendly respect between the two formal rivals of Tetsu and Shooting Star. Introducing Umitani in the second half of the picture does several things: first, it shows the long reach of the Tokyo crime lords; second, the dialogue reemphasizes the repeating sequence of Tetsu’s drifting (he arrives at some place, learns that his presence may destabilize or aggravate a local situation, and decides it would be better for everyone involved if he left…); and Umitani serves as a sort of conduit to bring the inevitable alliance between Shooting Star and Tetsu. Finally, it is through Umitani that Tetsu finally realizes that his un-wavering trust in his boss is misplaced.

While Tetsu is in Sasebo, bossman Kurata faces increasing pressure from Okatsu to whack him. In Kurata’s defense, his betrayal of Tetsu is something he does very reluctantly. A boss has to make decisions in view of the big picture, and it is apparent that in order to solidify a peaceful coexistence with Okatsu, Kurata must sacrifice Tetsu. Under this duress, he orders Umitani to kill Tetsu.

Umitani, of course, has grave misgivings about his assignment. He likes Tetsu and only recently became his good friend. Yet, the long tentacles of the Tokyo syndicate have weight. Shooting Star knows this and has talked himself blue in the face trying to convince Tetsu not to rely on the return loyalty of his boss. Finally, Tetsu gets the message when he realizes his boss ordered Umitani to whack him...and, hurt by the betrayal, decides to end the exile and resolve matters in Tokyo. In a heartwarming twist, Umitani, though initially intent on carrying out his orders, cannot bring himself to kill Tetsu and there is a nice Casablanca-like shot of him and Shooting Star walking off in the morning light, knowing they are both now essentially ronin.

Tetsu returns to Tokyo to confront his double-crossing boss at Club Aruru where Chiharu is singing by gunpoint. Without revealing too much of the climax, I will just say that the audience is finally ready to see “toss-gun-serpentine-retrieve-gun-and-fire” as ably performed by Tetsu.Wow!

Tokyo Drifter is not good enough to hold the audiences’ attention with every plot detail (I did it, so that you would not have to), but you would be amazed out how pleasant it is simply to watch. There are some inspired shots in this film and Suzuki makes the most out of some pretty cheesy sets.

Nikkatsu Studios focused on B-pictures and they got their money out of Suzuki. At least one online critic wondered aloud about what Suzuki would have done with a larger budget. I would venture to guess that he would have wasted the extra money. When you have someone who proves to be innovative within the small budgets and the tight three-week filming schedules, it is unlikely that he would pair as comfortably with more lavish A-list perameters. As proof: consider the difference between the low budget Branded to Kill (1967) and the bigger budget remake Pistol Opera (2001). Neither is a best effort in my opinion, but the former has a fascinating style and is, at least, watch-able (though Branded is the crown jewel to many Suzuki fans), whereas Pistol Opera simply is not. With Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki reaches a high water mark, not for telling a story (Tattooed Life is his finest picture) but in simple aesthetic presentation. His previous films, some very fine, do not have the same equilibrium between soundtrack, technicolor, action and sets that Drifter has. In the end, the audience may not know the significance of his various artistic flourishes - why the post-modern donut alters hues the way it does - but it will have a fun time watching those flourishes.