I have absolutely no problem with the idea of “style over substance,” as long as it’s done right. Anyone who instantly throws that term out there as nothing but a negative is just the sort of no-fun movie snob that I don’t want anything to do with. There are certain directors who I’m sure would agree with me, who in fact spent most of their careers more interested in the “style” of their movies than the mechanics of the storytelling. One such filmmaker is Seijun Suzuki, who during the late ’50s and most of the ’60s made a number of Yakuza movies that championed flashy visuals and bad-ass attitude over logical plots.


Suzuki’s films were so out there, in fact, that his studio bosses were often very upset with the films he turned in, and would often try to find ways to force him into adopting a more “standard” style. With Tokyo Drifter, for instance, the studio cut his budget, hoping Suzuki would be unable to indulge in his usual crazy tricks with less money. They were wrong. Suzuki probably took it as a challenge, and I can definitely say Tokyo Drifter is still very much an exercise in style.

The “Tokyo Drifter” of the title is Tetsu, a former Yakuza forced to go on the run after the boss he is loyal to (and who swore to Tetsu that they would now be going straight) turns on him and teams up with a rival Yakuza who wants Tetsu dead. You won’t know that’s the story for awhile, though, since not only does it take a while for the main plot to kick in, but also – quite honestly – the story is just a tad confusing.

Part of this has to do with Suzuki’s aforementioned “logic be damned” attitude – the movie starts right off throwing you right into the story as if it’s already in progress. I sort of felt like I was watching the fourth episode of a series, without having seen any of the previous episodes. It also doesn’t help that it can be hard to tell some of these characters apart…and I swear I mean that in the least racist way possible. It’s just that there are so many characters with no discernible traits, all wearing the same sort of suits and with the same short haircuts. I mean, geez, one of Tetsu’s main rivals is named Tatsu! That can be rough when you’re relying on subtitles.

But, whatever, like I said, you don’t watch Tokyo Drifter for the plot, and the fact is the story is JUST strong enough to allow for a number of very cool and unique scenes. The movie is a feast for the eyes, with Suzuki especially interested in colors and how he can play with them throughout the film (as a result, Suzuki’s bosses would force him to start shooting in black and white after this, so as to once again try to calm him down). The visuals sometimes border on slipping over into pure surrealism, without ever really making that final leap. So, yeah, maybe it has a little more “style” than “substance,” but man, does that style sing, daddy-o (sorry, thinking about the movie made me feel a little more hip than I actually am for a moment there).

It’s obvious watching this movie how Suzuki’s style could have been a little jarring at the time, and it’s also no surprise that his work was later re-evaluated and given cult appreciation by a generation of film fans more accepting of irreverence and experimental filmmaking techniques. It’s also not hard to guess which American director was particularly inspired by his work – I’m fairly sure that if I were to watch this movie two more times, it would instantly summon Quentin Tarantino into my house, Candyman-style. But I can’t blame QT for his adoration – the movie was a blast. The highest compliment I can pay it is that it made being a former Yakuza turned vengeful drifter so cool, I almost want to pursue that path myself. Only the facts that I’m not Japanese and sort of a wimp are really holding me back.

 

 

This review was originally posted on May 3rd, 2011 at Trevor Likes Movies.

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