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I have the pleasure and honor of kicking-off the revived film club. Given my personal enthusiasm for the film, and the interest expressed by many would-be film club participants, my selection for June 2016 will be Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter.

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You've (probably) never seen anything quite like it, though you'll probably all recognize that Tarantino took a page or two from Tokyo Drifter's book for Kill Bill.

In Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki warps a standard-fare yakuza flick into a surreal, pop-art explosion. Suzuki's experimentation would later derail his career (in 1967's Branded to Kill, Suzuki abandoned conventional notions of narrative and established film grammar altogether, and the resulting uproar knocked him out of filmmaking for a decade). Manohla Darghis wrote a brief piece on Suzuki for Tokyo Drifter's Criterion release, and it's worth a look (there are no real spoilers for the film there).

Tokyo Drifter is available on Hulu+ and for rent via Amazon Prime, so those are two easy ways to view the film. We'll commence "official" conversation on the film beginning at the start of June.

I look forward to discussing Tokyo Drifter with you all!

Edited by Ryan H.

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NBooth   
1 minute ago, Ryan H. said:

June is here!

I'm going to revisit Tokyo Drifter this weekend.

I'm going to be doing the same (well, visiting rather than revisiting).

Edited by NBooth

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Attica   

I was poking around my local movie store yesterday.  It has a lot of DVD's, but not Tokyo Drifter.  I'm not sure as to the internet availability for Canada, will have to look into that.  

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Just watched it, and it'll take some time to process, but its hyper-stylized pop-art form eventually won me over.

I do have two questions for those who are more familiar with the film (I'll put the questions as spoilers for now, as some may have not seen the film yet):

1.

Spoiler

Is it supposed to be funny? Because I found it laugh-out-loud silly at times. When Tetsu pries open the elevator doors and falls into the open shaft, I burst out laughing. Or when the police detective is pushed over into the snow bank. Or any time Tetsu starts singing his own theme song. I don't think I could call this a comedy, per se, but it's certainly campy. It feels like everyone involved is having fun with the process.

2.

Spoiler

Is it supposed to have a gay/queer subtext? So many aspects seemed to point in this direction: Tetsu's attempt to "go straight" being thwarted by the relentless pursuit of other men; Tetsu's repeated rejection of the company of women, particularly the one woman who seems to be attracted to him ("A drifter needs no woman"); an emphasis on fashion, hair, and mirrors (which may just be 1960s mod culture, but still....); the western saloon fight which ends in a literal pile of half-naked Japanese guys and US Navy sailors; Tetsu being framed behind bars, fences or obscuring lines, suggesting that he feels trapped and needs to break out; the relationship between Tetsu and "Shooting Star" in the green jacket felt like something more than "just friends," and the removal of the bullet from Tetsu's arm is one standout moment of intimacy and proximity, and Shooting Star decides to stick close and spend the night to take care of Tetsu. I may be totally wrong and my interpretation is way off, but I'm genuinely curious if this has ever been considered as queer cinema. That's the vibe I got, at least.

 

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Evan C   

Really brief thoughts:

I watched it two weeks ago, before I left on my trip to Europe, and I plan to watch it again once I get back to flesh more out of it.

The style is so thoroughly wedded to the substance that it seems wrong to say the movie is a triumph of style over substance (the plot struck me as pretty thin), but rather the style is the substance.

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I should be able to view this over the weekend (well, my weekend which is Sun. - Mon.). Looking forward to it!

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15 hours ago, Evan C said:

Really brief thoughts:

I watched it two weeks ago, before I left on my trip to Europe, and I plan to watch it again once I get back to flesh more out of it.

The style is so thoroughly wedded to the substance that it seems wrong to say the movie is a triumph of style over substance (the plot struck me as pretty thin), but rather the style is the substance.

I think I agree, but not really in a positive way. In finishing the movie I thought to myself, "Wow, I loved the look of that movie and its music." But throughout the film I struggled to connect at all with the protagonist. I do plan to view it again in the next week or so to give it another shot. I struggled throughout to keep several of the secondary characters straight, and that might have been a bit of a distraction.

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I agree with Evan that this film's style *is* its substance. This initially bothered me, as if the film was trying very hard to be very cool with its use of color, camera angles, and guys-in-suits-smoking (something which completely turns me off to Tarantino). But once I realized that its narrative wasn't really the point, that many of the scenes were going to feel totally unrealistic and surreal, I found myself enjoying it in the same way I enjoy some of the more campy Roger Moore-era James Bond films. The camerawork and editing can feel jarring at times, and there are some definite "huh?" moments (e.g. in the car when Tetsu is suddenly driver and swerving all around, the scene just suddenly ends, with no explanation of how Tetsu got there or got away). These were somehow endearing rather than frustrating for me, perhaps because I let go of my preconceived notions of a what a yakuza film should be and allowed Suzuki's vision to take me along for the ride.

Films like Tokyo Drifter raise the question for me about style vs. substance, and the value of narrative within a film. For instance, I rather love Mad Max: Fury Road and Drive, two very different films whose style is quite notable, but the stories are very simple, and I recall critics (may some on this board?) who were underwhelmed by both films due to their lack of a larger narrative. Or Knight of Cups, where narrative is essentially nonexistent, has plenty of detractors (though I loved it too). Or the short films of Brakhage, where narrative is *definitely* nonexistence. But these are all quite distinct from Tokyo Drifter, though I suppose Drive is in a similar vein with its neon neo-noir fantasy elements. My question: What makes this style-over-substance "work" for some films and not others?

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My problem with Tokyo Drifter was less its lack of narrative than its lack of characterization.  Those other movies you mention, Drive, Mad Max Fury Road, have very transparent, expressive, and relatable characters, which I did not find to be the case in Tokyo Drifter. The filming matches the drama of the narrative and helps us connect with the characters.. Tokyo Drifter, on the other hand, felt like a mismatch between those elements.

Edited by Cunningham

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Andrew   

Here's a handful of assorted comments, jettisoned out somewhat randomly:

- I found this film to be a helluva lot of fun.  Like others have mentioned, I found the characters a bit confusing (it took me a little while to realize there were two Tetsus, for instance), and the emphasis on style over characterization means this isn't my preferred type of movie, but I'm still grateful for this peek into the work of Suzuki.

- Joel M., I think you're definitely onto something; now that you've pointed it out, it's impossible to unsee the gay subtext, intentional or not.

- Is there a bit of Ozu homage going on here?  (Suzuki would've been making this film about 2 years after the death of the 'most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers,' just for some context.)  Ozu's mature style certainly wouldn't have embraced Suzuki's use of wipes or contorted camera tilts to follow the progress of the thugs' car, but there are a handful of pillow shots that were quite nice, yet unnecessary to the advancement of the narrative.

- It's easy to get distracted by looking forward to this film's influence on Tarantino's work, and overlook the references to the American Western genre.  There's the whole heroic loner thing going on, not to mention the hilariously over-the-top brawl in the saloon.

- I think there is some substance to Tokyo Drifter.  Suzuki spends a lot of time contrasting the rival yakuza lords, Kurata and Otsuka, as well as their respective surroundings.  Kurata is far more Eastern, respectable, and homely, even a bit matronly when he serves Tetsu in his home; Tetsu and his girl hang out in a classy club.  Otsuka is brash, glitzy, and trashy, with his crew hanging out above a go go nightclub that marries the worst of American and Japanese pop culture.  Yet, in the end it's all about money and power (and violence if deemed necessary) for both yakuza, so a respectable man has to eschew both of them and go it alone.

- The opening sequence and images behind the opening credits nicely establish the grotesque modernism of postwar Japan.

Now, to dig into my Japanese cinema books, to see if I can ferret out any additional tidbits...

 

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NBooth   

Ok, then. Watched this tonight--went whole hog, too, with sweet-glazed beef (Gyuniku teriyaki) and some sake that a friend of mine provided. Thoughts:

1. Yep, I picked up on a kind of gay subtext, though I'm not certain whether I was primed for it from reading comments here beforehand or whether it's an accident of this being the sort of movie where Lonely Men do Lonely Things together. It certainly didn't come off as quite as obviously queer as, say, anything by Chang Cheh. And searching around, I can't find anyone really talking about a subtext here. But I think Joel M's onto something.

2. I loved the sets in this movie, particularly the one used in the final confrontation, which reminded me of some of the more surreal locations used in The Avengers (the real ones, not the comic book movies). [And, come to think of it, the style-as-substance point could also be raised about that show--and, actually, this movie came out the same year that The Avengers went to color and made a wholehearted leap to camp surrealism].

3. I'm wondering how many genres we can fit in here; there's the Yakuza flick, the Western, the noir (the rejection of the woman at the end is equal parts Shane and Sam Spade, without the whole sending-her-to-jail bit), possibly samurai film.... Speaking of Westerns, the protagonist's trick of singing his own theme song reminded me of nothing so much as Singin' Sandy:

 

4. I was frankly surprised that the protagonist got through the finale unharmed; the minute I saw his white suit I thought of Baccano! and the gag there about how one of the gangs wears white because it makes the blood stand out more. 

5. What's the obsession with hair dryers in this movie?

6. Here's a blog post I found on the movie. It touches on some of the issues raised in this thread:

 

Quote

Thematic use of color isn't some great, startling invention, but I have never seen a movie that stayed so faithful to its initial rules. As with Branded To Kill, however, the question to ask is not whether Suzuki is stylistically inventive (he is), but what his style is in service of. And although Tokyo Drifter is a much more accessible movie than Branded To Kill and has a much more traditional style, it seems to me to have more going on beneath its surface than Branded To Kill did. It has a standard Yakuza plot, but scratch it and you'll find a critique of Japanese adoption of Western culture, customs, and economics after World War II. I don't mean to suggest that this movie is the work of a genius; in a lot of ways (the acting, for instance) it struck me as mediocre. But it's more interesting than it looks at first glance.

....

Overall, I think I kind of loved this movie. The plot wasn't so much of a problem as getting into the plot, but then again--as has been said--plot is totally secondary to style anyway. I think Drifter definitely has a sense of humor about its own stylistic excesses (again, much like The Avengers), and since its excesses are so darned gorgeous I'd probably forgive them even if it didn't. 

Also--and this isn't a high critical comment or anything--this movie is just darned cool.

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth   

One thing to keep in mind about the possible gay subtext here is that all of the genres in play--I mean, the ones rooted in the West--are pretty homoerotic/homosocial to begin with. Westerns, obviously, have their roots in Cooper--who, as Love and Death in the American Novel gleefully points out, presented at the center of his Leatherstocking tales a pair of men whose bond excludes women (and who raise a son together!). [Cooper's grandson was apparently gay. He was also a poet. That's apropos of nothing--mostly an excuse to link "To a Friend"]. And so on, up through Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident, which I certainly read as homoerotic in key respects. And then, of course, there's hard boiled detective fiction and the related-but-not-identical noir, with their concern--obsession, actually--with masculinity and sexuality (take The Maltese Falcon: as everyone knows, "gunsel" actually means "gay," and Joel Cairo is pretty obviously gay as well). [Going even further back, Graham Robb argues--convincingly, to my mind--that Poe's Dupin is coded as gay, and of course there's a rich tradition of reading Holmes and Watson as lovers--I'd argue that we need only look to Rex Stout's "Watson was a Woman" to see that at least some readers have read the relationship in that way, and if what I hear about the Raffles stories is correct, the subtext there is a clear gloss on Holmes-Watson]. I have no idea how these things play out in Yakuza or Samurai movies, but there was apparently a tradition of same-sex love in samurai culture.

And, of course, one thing that all of these genres have in common is that the detective is a loner ("a drifter needs no woman!")--Shane rides off into the sunset, Spade turns in his lover out of a sense of honor or duty or whatever, Holmes "never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer" (SCAN) [and, no, Irene Adler isn't an exception at the end of the day]. Which isn't to say that these characters are gay, but that they exist in a narrative space that opens up the possibility for a queer reading. And that's a structural thing; they couldn't exist in the genres they inhabit without inviting some sort of queer reading.

So with Tokyo Drifter. It might not be an intentional subtext, but I think it's almost certainly an inevitable subtext. (I'm reminded again of Chang Cheh, who insisted that there was nothing gay about his depiction of heavily-muscled men wandering around in packs while wearing costumes that are--I'm pretty sure--ahistorically skimpy. Riiiight).

It's worth noting that Suzuki apparently included a gay character in his movie Youth of the Beast.

Edited by NBooth

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Quote

Which isn't to say that these characters are gay, but that they exist in a narrative space that opens up the possibility for a queer reading. And that's a structural thing; they couldn't exist in the genres they inhabit without inviting some sort of queer reading.

That's a really helpful evaluation, NBooth. I initially hesitated in asking the question, partly because I didn't want others to enter the film looking for a gay subtext if there truly wasn't one, and partly because of what you stated above--the film's characters aren't necessarily gay, but the film's tone and structure does invite such a reading. There was a distinct moment for me where I couldn't help but see the gay themes: the scene with Tetsu and Shooting Star in the hotel room, when his arm is being mended. After that, I couldn't unsee this interpretation for the rest of the film. It's all fairly subtle--as if one could say *anything* in Tokyo Drifter is subtle--but I think it's present enough to warrant a conversation about the film's gay themes. Still, I couldn't find anyone who has written about either Tokyo Drifter or Suzuki's films having a gay subtext, though that doesn't mean it hasn't been done.

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NBooth   

That scene was precisely the one in which the reading popped out to me as well

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I treat Suzuki as the filmmaker equivalent of a jazz arranger, taking established classics and twisting them into new, unconventional shapes, riffing on fragments of melody until them become something else altogether. On a narrative level (and, once you get past the disorienting editing that leaps from instant to instant), Tokyo Drifter is a meat-and-potatoes gangster tale, albeit a well-structured one. Suzuki's impressionistic, ecstatic flourishes that turn it into an unforgettably surreal exercise in sight and sound. Suzuki's lack of interest in connective tissue strikes me less as a sign of contempt for the material and more of a lack of interest in connective tissue itself: he'd rather skip from vibrant image to vibrant image, capturing the core impulses of each scene without having to drudge through all the inevitable-but-not exciting stuff in-between. At other moments, Suzuki digs into the story's corners to discover the images lurking there, inserting them into otherwise straight-forward exchanges.

Andrew's notes about the "substance" of Tokyo Drifter strikes me as being absolutely right: there is no honor amongst gangsters, regardless of whether they clothe themselves in tradition or whether they feel like a product of the cultural moment. In its own breezy way, it recalls the two versions of Harakiri (Kobayashi and Miike), which paints the honor code of the samurai as empty hypocrisy. We could read Tokyo Drifter as a dramatization of the cultural conflicts of the 1960s, a declaration that both the old ways and the new ways are a dead end. If the film's cartoonishness gives the film a light air, I nevertheless find something affecting about Tetsu's journey and the expressionistic ways in which the film's universe shifts to echo it (that bone-white climactic shoot-out is something else!).

Suzuki worked in a tightly constrained system where contracted directors were assigned scripts and leading cast members by the executives (in the case of Tokyo Drifter, he was also assigned a theme song), given a short period of time to shoot a picture (less than 30 days), and a limited budget and told to go to work. Suzuki began as a for-hire director and began pushing back against the system, finding new ways to play with his pictures. Some of his more inspired stylistic touches simply occurred as a result of the tight budget constraints (for example, they didn't have the money for expensive sets, and had to use expressive lighting to give their otherwise stark sets dimension and personality).

In the extras on the Criterion disc, Suzuki comes across less as a rigorous theoretician or cinematic philosopher than an affable employee who was simply finding new ways to explore his own instinctive artistic impulses. What emerged from his attempts to push beyond mere convention feels both a little like the products of the French New Wave in France and the Spaghetti Western movement in Italy: this is an energized, brash, almost experimental riffs on existing genre structures (the noir, the Western), reveling in its tropes even as it tries to push into less familiar waters. (For those wondering, Suzuki does mention Ozu, but less as an influence than as a benchmark of competition; in Suzuki's mind, Ozu set the standard, and it was up to the younger generation to challenge him.)

Tokyo Drifter was despised by the studio executives, and Suzuki was warned for his excesses. A short while later, he was fired for the wild and alienating Branded to KillTokyo Drifter may be unusual, but it still retains its roots as a yakuza flick. Branded To Kill is something else entirely, and, as far as I can tell, is generally regarded as the Suzuki masterpiece (personally, I find Branded to Kill a little bewildering, but I owe it another watch).

More than anything, I find Tokyo Drifter fantastic fun. This burst of cinematic jazz has an irresistible groove.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Andrew   

I'll add some more later, but a couple of comments jumped out from my readings in Japanese cinema yesterday:

- Donald Ritchie (the great promoter of Japanese cinema to American audiences) helpfully described Suzuki's style as now being regarded as "manga-esque pre-pop art."

- Tadao Sato (now 85 and as I understand it, the preeminent film critic in Japan) writes of how Suzuki's experiences as a WW2 soldier left him cynical and even nihilistic about authority figures and structures.  I'd say that shows up clearly in Tokyo Drifter.  In addition, Sato reports that the lack of transitions between scenes were due more to budgetary constraints than any stylistic choice on Suzuki's part.  

Evidently, there was a bit of a public outcry against the anarchical tendencies of Suzuki's films and their appeal to young audiences in the 1960s, contributing to his firing by his studio later in the decade.

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3 hours ago, Andrew said:

In addition, Sato reports that the lack of transitions between scenes were due more to budgetary constraints than any stylistic choice on Suzuki's part.

I buy that to a certain extent, but it doesn't fully account for how the sharp jumps between narrative beats will often occur within scenes as well. The editing rhythms here are very unusual across the board.

The film that resulted in Suzuki being blackballed, Branded to Kill, embraces the style so much further to the point where it has to be an intentional choice.

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NBooth   
4 hours ago, Ryan H. said:

I buy that to a certain extent, but it doesn't fully account for how the sharp jumps between narrative beats will often occur within scenes as well. The editing rhythms here are very unusual across the board.

Yeah, I'm of the same mind. Certainly other directors face similar constraints and don't produce an effect as striking and characteristic. 

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On 6/5/2016 at 6:01 PM, NBooth said:

Yeah, I'm of the same mind. Certainly other directors face similar constraints and don't produce an effect as striking and characteristic. 

Yep.

I'm trying to think of other films that have similar approaches to editing. I'm reminded a bit of Boorman's psychedelic Point Blank.

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While the design and color and music choices were striking throughout Tokyo Drifter, there were two camera shots that struck me as hugely inventive. One was at the 13:35 timestamp, right after we see Viper Tatsuso intimidate Chiharu. There is a shot of the traffic, with the camera held level, and the traffic moving across the frame horizontally. Then the camera tilts to the left, and pans to the right until it catches another car in the frame. As it follows that car back around to the left, the tilt that it had previously made leads it to line up square with the car as it parks below the viewer. The way the camera moved was initially so surprising, but then lined up exactly with where the shot was ending. 

The other shot, which I'm sure everybody else noticed, was when Mutsuko was shot and you see her from above crumple onto the floor. This was such an inventive shot, but in this case, I wonder if it served to alienate the viewer somewhat. The cut is from Kurata, Tetsu's boss, seeing that Mutsuko is shot, to this shot from above. I was expecting a 180 degree cut, but then the camera abruptly shot up into the ceiling, disconnecting the viewer from Kurata's reaction.

Edited by Cunningham

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4 hours ago, Cunningham said:

The other shot, which I'm sure everybody else noticed, was when Mutsuko was shot and you see her from above crumple onto the floor. This was such an inventive shot, but in this case, I wonder if it served to alienate the viewer somewhat. The cut is from Kurata, Tetsu's boss, seeing that Mutsuko is shot, to this shot from above. I was expecting a 180 degree cut, but then the camera abruptly shot up into the ceiling, disconnecting the viewer from Kurata's reaction.

Oh, yes. A very striking moment, not just because of the beauty of the shot itself, but because of how the disorientating edit adds to the shock of the violence.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Anders   

Watched this last night. Liked it a lot. Some wonderful visuals and editing. No wonder Tarantino was besotted.

I'll try to think of something more to say about how I see this film relating to other yakuza films from the era I've seen, like PALE FLOWER (a masterpiece) and the first few volumes of the BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY series. It strikes me that the most productive discussion above is when we think of this as pop-art. Wonderful stuff.

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Tarantino's greatest contribution to cinema culture may not be his own distinctive films, but rather the attention he has brought to filmmakers outside of the "canonical" stream.

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