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.

5 comments:

Charlie Parsley said...

my goodness, a full essay on this film. one will assume that the author enjoyed the film very much.

the drifter character resonates with the independent law enforcer character, as seen in the smaurai and James Bond films.

indeed it seems the rebellious individual pursuing his or her own path of truth uncovering and justice bringing is the center of many films.

James Bond
Hanzo the Razor
every Schwarzenegger character
most Stallone characters
as well as Bruce Willis
and Nicholas Cage
Julia Robert's Erin Brokovich
Charlize Theron's Monster
Kermit the Frog
Frodo
Skywalker

really, the main character in nearly every film has a mission to complete which calls for the character to bend the rules just enough to get what they were after.

I wonder why this is.

jeffrey said...

Charles: not sure if Tetsu is after justice exactly. He's more out for revenge...at the end. Up til then he's doggedly loyal and trying to keep his boss out of trouble.

Anonymous said...

do you have the lyrics in Japanese?

Jeffrey Hill said...

The lyrics were taken from the subtitles on the DVD. I don't have the Japanese lyrics.

Anonymous said...

thanks for responding so quick! i'll have to keep on searching...