Blu-Ray Review – Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill remain Seijun Suzuki’s best-known films amongst western audiences, although I’m not sure about his native Japanese audience. This was partly due to filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino singing his praises, but also because both films were released as Criterion DVDs early on, which were essentially a port of the laserdisc editions. Both films were issued in remastered Blu-Rays by Criterion in 2011, and Tokyo Drifter has finally received a Blu-Ray release in the UK by Criterion. Arrow Video did a handsome release for Branded to Kill, which even includes a softcore parody.

Suzuki was one of the most unique filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave of the ’60s, a time when there were a lot of incredibly creative and strange films being made. These often fell through the cracks, with examples ranging from The Face of Another to the gender-bending The Funeral Parade of Roses. Suzuki made mostly young gang films early on, and eventually graduated to Yakuza films. These were incredibly successful, but he must have got hold of a sugarcube of LSD in the mid ’60s, because his films became increasingly surrealistic. Branded to Kill is about a hitman who gets aroused by sniffing rice, and while Tokyo Drifter is on a surface level a normal Yakuza shoot-‘em-up, the black and white sequences that open every scene turn it into a pop art extravaganza that dips into the full blown psychedelia at times. It’s like with each scene he is trying to out-do the one that came before.

When the Nikkatsu studio heads saw what Suzuki had done with Tokyo Drifter, they flipped out, but the film escaped out to the public just in time. Suzuki would essentially be blacklisted for a decade after Branded to Kill came out in 1967. The studio had this to say about his films: “Suzuki’s films were incomprehensible, that they did not make any money and that Suzuki might as well give up his career as a director as he would not be making films for any other companies.” His contact was unlawfully terminated, and he spent the next few years in court. There were literally protests supporting him from critics, students and filmmakers on various grounds, including Suzuki’s own freedom of speech. He wouldn’t make a feature again for another decade, but did find some work in television and commercials, which probably suited his style—we all know Japanese TV is like a bad acid trip, after all.

Seijun Suzuki was one of the most individualistic auteurs to ever exist, and should be hailed as up there with Orson Welles, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Terrence Malick, etc. His films can be incredibly hit and miss, but Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter cemented him as a true one-off. Those two films are truly awe-inspiring pieces of art that should be taught in film schools.

The special features with this release include an interview with Suzuki from 1997 and a video piece from 2011, which includes interviews with the great man and his assistant director Masami Kuzuu. The original theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by Howard Hampton finish off the set.

★★★★★

Ian Schultz

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