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Tokyo Drifter

  • Japan
  • 1966
  • 83 mins
  • HD
  • Japanese
  • English (subtitles)

“Like a hybrid of James Bond and MGM musicals, laced with LSD” — G. Allen Johnson, SFGATE

“Stunning subversion of commercial gangster genres, wildly over-the-top, stylistically imaginative, and totally watchable” — GUARDIAN

They don’t call him “Phoenix” Tetsu for nothing. Following in what he imagines are his esteemed boss Kurata’s footsteps, Tetsuya Hondo is quitting the life of crime and going straight. But the mob never lets go that easy. When Hondo’s personal ethical code won’t bend in the storm, the defiant young gangster is cast adrift on the wind — to await his own execution perhaps. The hitman “Viper” Tatsuko is on his trail. Things are about to get dangerous. And confusing. But cool. Very, very cool.

He was a lone wolf, living by his own fierce code. His boss thought he could keep this man pinned under his thumb. The boss thought wrong — and payback was a… sorry, did you think we were still referring to Tetsuya Hondo, TOKYO DRIFTER’s titular tough guy? No, we mean Seijun Suzuki, the film’s iconoclastic director. Following a decade-plus of more-than-competent B-movie making at Nikkatsu (yakuza flicks in particular), the undeniably talented and artistically exasperated Suzuki was in full revolt in 1966, ever more at odds with his straightlaced superior, studio president Kyusaku Hori. Assigned a uninspired, underfunded potboiler, with matinee idol Tetsuya Watari as the lead, Suzuki handed Hori this — an archly ironic, confoundingly elliptical, outrageously stylish middle finger to the Man, its echoes of European arthouse excesses of the era amplified by Takeo Kimura’s delicious production design and So Kaburagi’s hip score.

Word is, Hori warned Suzuki not to make any more “incomprehensible” films after TOKYO DRIFTER. 1967’s legendary, black-and-white BRANDED TO KILL was essentially his letter of resignation — and a monochromatic masterpiece of mid-’60s madness, cementing Suzuki’s counterculture cred. Legal clashes with the studio followed his dismissal, but three decades later, Suzuki reconciled with Nikkatsu and made 2001’s PISTOL OPERA, proving the pop-art provocateur as elegant, wry and anarchic as ever. Suzuki’ s later filmography is a silver bullet through the heart of mundane and mediocre movie-making, and it was the gaudy, outlandish gangster-à-gogo prank TOKYO DRIFTER that was the trigger.

— Rupert Bottenberg