Director: Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tamio Kawachi
Release date: 10th April 1966 (Japan)
I was disappointed that I had not seen Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 cult classic sooner, considering it has most of the elements that have drawn me to particular crime films. A loner (usually impeccably dressed) who lives by a code, existential themes, moody colours, a cool detached atmosphere, and occasional blasts of violence. It’s reminiscent of films like Le Samouraï, Drive, Ghost Dog, and Thief.
The story concerns a former yakuza enforcer, Tetsu “The Phoenix” Hondo, trying to go legit along with his former partners in crime. However, the yakuza have other plans for him, forcing Tetsu to go on the run while wearing awesome looking suits, becoming the eponymous drifter. No matter how far he runs, his violent past is not far behind. His sense of honour and duty to his syndicate proves to be his greatest strength and ultimate downfall, as even his former colleagues are forced to go after him. Everyone’s ideals become corrupted in the end. Everyone but Tetsu, who begrudgingly accepts his fate as a drifter, leaving his lounge singer girlfriend behind as he walks into the horizon.
As important as plot and story may be, one can almost disregard it in this case and simply enjoy Suzuki’s vibrant brand of pop art filmmaking. Within the framework of the crime genre, he creates some of the most stunning and energetic visuals of a film from this era. It’s worth it just to view the gorgeous colouring in each shot; the deep reds, stark whites, washed out blues, searing yellows, and all sorts of neon varieties. Additionally, the outfits worn in this film are textbook definitions of cool. Seriously, everyone looks so damn good. Modern menswear could learn a thing or two from this. Takeo Kimura’s production design deserves a lot of recognition for being wholly of that era and still looking contemporary.
Just when you think the film is getting too heavy or pensive, Suzuki will throw in something bonkers like a Roadhouse-style bar fight that leads to a literal pileup of bodies, or he’ll stage a shootout that would look right at home in a MoMA video installation. The gun-battles here are appropriately operatic but not cartoony. When people get shot, they writhe and contort in just the right way as to complement the frame’s composition. Suzuki also knew that a little levity goes a long way as demonstrated by the greek chorus of cheeseball songs that help transition us from scene to scene, narrating Tetsu’s inner turmoil.
The film is currently available on the Criterion Collection. Go check it out. It is an excellent exhibition of retro “cool.”