A disillusioned paranoia possessed only by those heavy into the criminal underground, the shifty characters and those pointlessly trying to escape their fate is such a rare, intimate feeling that only cinema can capture. Mania and panicked individuals always looking over their shoulder, scared of what their past may throw at them. In the case of Tokyo Drifter, the cutthroat brutality of the Yakuza is not the reason these characters should be wary. With hitmen out to cause distress, and rival gangs encroaching, the subsequent claustrophobia and feverish escape is palpable, engaging, and sickeningly great. Kurata (Ryuji Kita) has dissolved his network of criminals, and so the hunt for power, cash and corruption is on. Seijun Suzuki explores the underworld of villains and dastardly beings with enthusiasm.
Such eagerness to display these themes and characters are appreciated. Tokyo Drifter is a mesmerizing piece. Suzuki’s eye for colour and flair serves his craft well, and what follows is some delicate choreography. An effective utilisation of lighting is clear throughout, each scene serves a crucial purpose, but, more importantly, is intricate in its artistry and meaning. Pairing strong camera framing with a variety of settings, scenarios and palates, the technical merits of this piece are there not just to support these characters in their acts of violent espionage, but offer a frequent, inviting appeal to the scenes they are in. Tetsuya Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) and his struggles against these organised criminals is shown with clarity and a clear dissemination of fact and dialogue serves the film well.
Tokyo Drifter presents a split not just of Yakuza factions, but of inner turmoil for the leading man. He is, quite clearly, in over his head. Making the best of a bad situation and trying to hold it together, there is a beautifully terrified splendour to Watari’s role as he shuffles through encounter after encounter with various, menacing individuals. That, in a sense, is where the “drifter” aspect of the title can be found. There is no end to the madness Hondo finds himself in and as he passively accepts the highs and lows of life after enforcement, it is clear that his fears come from boredom. He is not sure what to do with himself now that his time in a desperately illegal and dangerous field of work has come to a close.
But it is not the work he misses; it is the loyalty. His accompanying cast and characters are hounding him to the ends of the Earth for refusing employment, rather than any conspicuous threat he possessed when in his previous role. Tokyo Drifter captures that exceptionally well, and it makes for a thoroughly engaging narrative that, thanks to Suzuki, looks as amazing as it sounds and feels. An incredible soundtrack is an added extra for the pangs of pain Tetsuya feels for his new life in the real world, and his dismissal of the new normal is both admirable and life-threatening. Parody does spring to mind from time to time, but it is the core relationship between a man and his loyalty that perseveres above the jabs at the genre Tokyo Drifter is now synonymous with.