Off the Radar: “Tokyo Drifter” reinvents the Yakuza Film

Off the Radar is a weekly column surveying overlooked films available to students for free via NYU’s streaming partnerships. “Tokyo Drifter” is available to stream on Kanopy.

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“Tokyo Drifter” is a samurai spaghetti-western that pushes the bounds of 60s Japanese cinematography while staying true to the filmmaker. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Mick Gaw, Staff Writer

Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 “Tokyo Drifter” is a samurai spaghetti western dressed in a striking pop-art palette and slathered in excessive ’60s Americana. The film is filled with reality-defying action sequences, scheming mobsters in brightly colored suits and a corny theme song that comically permeates throughout the entire film. 

Viewers are thrust into a hyper-stylized 1960s Japan, jumping around a series of feverish kaleidoscopic interiors, all while following a lone gunman who navigates the mayhem of the criminal underworld. A tale of revenge, free agency and a denunciation of conformity, this Yakuza B movie has left an indelible mark on cinematic aesthetics and the process of filmmaking — influencing contemporary auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch

Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) is a gang enforcer for former-Yakuza boss and paternal figure Kurata (Ryūji Kita). Despite their best efforts to abandon their criminal past, they are troubled by enemies who won’t leave them alone. As the narrative unfolds, Tetsu is pushed to both his physical and psychological limits. Whether it’s a shootout on a snowy train track or an all-out brawl at a saloon burlesque show, Tetsu’s frequent near-death experiences force him to examine his allegiances and principles. 

One of the most magnetic qualities of the film is Suzuki’s dynamic sense of perspective. In some sequences, Suzuki captures wide shots of characters treading through vast swaths of snowy landscape or engaging in 20-person fistfights. However, he also produces more contained and intimate scenes. As Tetsu escapes from an underground trap door, he looks up and the camera pans to reveal the transparent plexiglass floors of a neon-pink discotheque. The shot is voyeuristic and conveys Tetsu’s inability to obtain the lifestyle of a regular civilian; longing to be as carefree as the dancers above him. Unique camerawork plays an essential role in viscerally encapsulating the tumult and pandemonium of Tetsu’s journey throughout the film. 

The film’s exploration of individuality and its breaking of convention reflect Suzuki’s own experiences as an artist. Having to constantly work around rigid genre templates and restrictive studio demands, Suzuki would experiment with assigned scripts in an act of creative rebellion. 

Suzuki abandons the visual style of gritty post-war Yakuza films and the thematic focus on strict adherence to criminal codes of honor. In many ways, “Tokyo Drifter” embodies both the revolutionary spirit of the Japanese New Wave and the enduring legacy of stylistic individuality in auteur cinema. 

Contact Mick Gaw at [email protected]