In Japan, what kind of film would ever feature a stoic, cool tough former gangster that can whistle or sing a song while guns are pointed at him?
The answer is "Tokyo Drifter", the 1966 film directed by Seijun Suzuki who has earned a worldwide following of cinema fans due to his experimental visual style, humor and nihilistic coolness that his style of films were ahead of its time.
While we are graced with films with visual style, humor and coolness by Beat Takeshi, Takashi Miike, Kazuaki Kiriya to name a few... Seijun Suzuki was part of the Nikkatsu company that churned two movies a week and had to work with a low budget, be creative and churn out a film within 25 days. Needless to say, executives didn't understand Suzuki's style, they criticized him, they talked down to him but what they didn't know was that his style was not being rebellious, it was his style.
You can call his style "surreal" but what Nikkatsu wanted was traditional-style filmmaking, Seijun Suzuki who created 40 B-movies for the company between 1956 and 1967 and he was anything but traditional.
After "Tokyo Drifter", he created two movies including his masterpiece "Branded to Kill" and the company had enough of Suzuki's style of filmmaking. While he never complained, he was fired from his job and successfully sued the company for wrongful dismissal but in Japanese business tradition, if you sue an entertainment company, you will be blacklisted (which still goes on today in Japan) and in this case, Suzuki was blacklisted for ten years.
In Japan, because he stood up to the big entertainment company, he became a counterculture icon and his films were shown at midnight screenings to a packed audience.
In America, many cinema fans appreciated Suzuki's work because of its visual, surreal style that was not as common to see in Japanese gangster films.
And while "Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded to Kill" have been released in America on LD and DVD from the Criterion Collection, in Dec. 2011, the Criterion Collection released both of Seijun Suzuki's films "Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded to Kill" on Blu-ray and DVD which features improved video quality plus new interviews conducted by the Criterion Collection in 2011.
As for "Tokyo Drifter", the film was to be made to propel the career of pop star Tetsuya Watari (who sang the theme song "Tokyo Nagarerumono") and according to Suzuki, he only had 28-days to shoot the film including editing and post-production. Because Nikkatsu was growing tired of Suzuki's bizarre visual style, they cut the film's budget in hoping that it would make things much more simpler for the filmmaker. But instead, it pushed Suzuki and art director Takeo Kimura to look for creative ways to making the film look cool.
For the intro, he wanted to experiment with expired film and because they were shooting on a low-budget, in order to be creative using a single set, they used a variety of colors. And also, Suzuki wanted to stray away from the typical yakuza film by giving the main protagonist warmer colors instead of wearing the typical black suit.
Suffice to say, once again, upon completion, Nikkatsu executives were not pleased. They felt that the film did not promote Tetsuya Watari and that the film was "incomprehensible" and he was ordered to reshoot the ending.
Needless to say, the film was ahead of its time and it introduced many cinema fans of his work and also creating demand for his older Nikkatsu films.
VIDEO & AUDIO:
"Tokyo Drifter" is presented in 2:35:1 aspect ratio, color and audio is presented in monaural. It's important to note that with the 2011 release, the release signifies the HD release of "Tokyo Drifter" on Blu-ray and for those wanting the best picture and audio quality, the Blu-ray is the version to buy.
But many may wonder if they owned the older 1999 DVD release and don't own a Blu-ray player, should they upgrade to the 2011 DVD release? I can tell you right now that the 2011 version takes advantage of newer technology. Colors and detail are more apparent than the older DVD and you also get newer special features. The picture quality is so much better but if you can, I highly recommend going for the Blu-ray release as you will get more vibrant colors and better picture quality.
According to the Criterion Collection, the new high-definition transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm low-contrast print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image System's DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
As for the monaural soundtrack, the new release was remastered at 24-bit from the original soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation.
Audio-wise, dialogue was clear and I detected no problems or crackle. Doing tests of the 1999 DVD release and the 2011 DVD release, there is a slight distinction of clarity in audio but for the most part, the difference is more apparent in the video.
"Tokyo Drifter", the 2011 DVD release comes with the following special features:
Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu - (12:12) A 2011 Criterion Collection interview with director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu discussing "Tokyo Drifter".
1997 Interview - (20:12) The following interview with Seijun Suzuki recorded during a retrospective from 1997 courtesy of the Japan Foundation and the Los Angeles Film Forum.
Trailer - (2:47) The original theatrical trailer for "Tokyo Drifter".
16-Page booklet - Featuring a new essay titled "Catch My Drift" by writer Howard Hampton.
Visually stylish and cool, "Tokyo Drifter" was an avante garde film that was ahead of its time!
Each time I have watched "Tokyo Drifter", it's one of those films that I never grown tired of watching. When I was younger, I used to equate "Tokyo Drifter" almost like a James Bond film. Stylish in presentation, suave protagonist that is always calm, cool, collected and great with a gun and isn't afraid in getting into a brawl.
Granted, the film is a yakuza story after all, but what I enjoyed about this film is its presentation that is so awkward and sometimes unusual, but in a very cool way!
For example, the introduction of the film is shown in black and white. But the contrast of the black and white is done in a way that looks nothing like your typical B&W film and then he spots a toy gun in red, how often do you see a gangster film with this type of artistic presentation. Never.
Another scene features an accidental shooting as one of Otsuka's gang member's girlfriend is shot and killed. Typically, you would see the girl shot, perhaps a closeup of the face and then the character falling to the ground. For Suzuki, we get a shot from high above. She gets up, feels the shot, rips the top of her dress up, falls and dies and then we get a close up shot as we see the blood flowing down the top of her breast.
Another shot features Tetsu walking through a snowy path with his light blue suit, on white snow but on the right is a red mailbox. There are several of these artistic shots that I absolutely love looking at.
And then you have the action, from the perfectly posed Tetsu shooting off his gun at an enemy to a scene where the enemy thinks they got him down, but then he starts singing or whistling his "Tokyo Nagaremono" song and eventually escapes death.
This is your bonafide anti-hero and while he looks like a normal guy, it's how he's characterized. Cool, focused and no matter if he gets shot, hit and falls on the ground multiple times...his suit is still pristine and he's still singing before kicking some ass!
Even the other characters have their own distinction. Otsuka is shown primarily with the camera focused on his sunglasses, his henchman Tatsuzo, known as the Viper, is often seen with his silencer, Keiichi the loner is seen with his forest green jacket and Umetani, a friend of Kurata is seen with his suit and leather gloves.
And the set design, while the same set is used, Suzuki and his art director went for creative lighting in order to continue to give this impressive visual style despite the studio cutting their budget in hopes that Suzuki would not be so creative and kept to traditional filmmaking.
So, suffice to say, I love this film! From the first time I watched it to so many multiple viewings leading up to this 2011 release, I'm so thrilled that the Criterion Collection has chose to give the film the HD treatment.
Granted, I'm not reviewing the Blu-ray release, but since I owned the original release and now reviewing this 2011 release, I can tell the difference in quality as this 2011 DVD looks very good and I can only think that the Blu-ray is so much better! The vibrant colors, the clarity and detail...I'm impressed of how this film looks compared to the original DVD release.
And also you get special features which is a major bonus!
Overall, "Tokyo Drifter" is a film that is worth the purchase, mainly for those who love classic Japanese cinema, especially the gangster films. But in this case, it's not your typical banal yakuza film, it's stylish, visually creative and surreal and it's a wonderful film from filmmaker Seijun Suzuki. And for those who thought the old DVD release from Criterion Collection was not that great in picture quality, well...you're going to love how this film looks with this latest release on DVD, especially on Blu-ray!
"Tokyo Drifter" is definitely recommended!