February 04, 2015

Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter (1966). Director Sejuin Suzuki’s dazzling, violent story of a young gangster named Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) who tries to quit his career as a gangster's hired man, but finds it more difficult than expected when his own former gang turns on him, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t return to them. Other rival gangs are after Testu too, so he decides to leave Tokyo, but he’s pursued across Japan and is continuously dragged into fights with them—which he wins with his amazingly precise reflexes and keen instincts. Watari is a terrific lead: He’s charming, smart, quiet, and knows how to act with his body, conveying his character’s motivation, conflict, and anguish with movement. This kind of acting, because it doesn’t involve dramatic soliloquys, is highly undervalued. It’s the kind of acting at which Keanu Reeves is so adept, and what made his latest action film, John Wick, a particular treat. (John Wick, incidentally, owes more than a bit to Tokyo Drifter.)

Like The Conformist, Tokyo Drifter is a film that improves the more I reflect on it. It’s probably very American of me to lump two foreign films together simply on the basis of their foreignness, but they're two foreign films that I've really enjoyed, not just endured. As I’ve purposed myself to absorb as many of the “great” movies of world cinema, I’ve often found it tough going. Foreign movies are frequently more challenging than American movies, and not because of the subtitles. It’s the fact that so many international films eschew the plot-driven aspect of the movies in favor of a more visceral cinematic experience. (This isn’t to say that American films never achieve this, or that either method is better than the other; nor is this meant to be a definitive statement about world cinema, but rather a general observation about many of the foreign movies I’ve watched.)

Bertolucci’s The Conformist was the first foreign film I saw that stuck with me for weeks after I’d seen it. The images of that movie really ingrained themselves in my mind, and even if some elements of the plot have faded away, I remember the images with pleasure, with a feeling of wonder at their beauty and their power, even when removed from the context of story. I must admit, I've had to acquire and nurture an appreciation--and an enjoyment--for the impressionistic feeling movies can give. I was raised to consume movies as mindless entertainment, so watching them in such a different way didn't always come naturally. But as I was watching Tokyo Drifter, which at first seemed incoherent and boring, I began to realize that the same thing--that movement into a new corridor of enjoyment and experience which had happened during (and after) The Conformist--was happening with this film. The plot of Tokyo Drifter isn’t all that difficult to follow, but Suzuki doesn’t always take the time to explain every scene thoroughly; he assumes the viewer won’t care if he makes certain jumps in action or exposition; instead, he’s interested in the next set piece. And you really can’t fault him for that. The action, though a little less believable now, is nothing if not well-choreographed and exciting.

Tokyo Drifter has the same kind of philosophical underpinning as an American Western film: it’s about a man who’s driven by some inner force that propels him forward and compels him to act; that internal push is, quite naturally, a threat to those on the outside, which is why so many people are out to kill poor Tetsu in cold blood. He’s so utterly likable that it’s hard to believe anyone would to kill him (and some often withdraw because they see the futility and the immorality of harming someone so easy to like as Tetsu), and yet, he’s also so much in command of his powers that you’re never all that worried for his safety. (And still, the film is still exciting and compelling, rather than pointless.)

I will probably have to watch Tokyo Drifter again to fully appreciate it, but even now I can see images from the movie which are utterly gorgeous, and some of them also incredibly violent. Watari, who gracefully moves through every shot like a panther, --decked out in a handsome blue-gray suit--is reason enough to like Tokyo Drifter. And there are lots of seedy bad guys, some of them fighting over a real estate scam, and lots of scenes of night clubs and other film noir-type locations. The jazzy score, so emblematic of that swinging 60s style, is a reminder that this is a movie. That’s one of the truly beautiful things about this film, one which distinguishes it from so many of our own action films, especially of recent years: it’s light, even though it’s not particularly comedic. Even the seriousness of the movie is light in tone, so you never feel bogged down emotionally. It’s exciting, it’s thoughtful, it’s serious about being a good movie, but it’s not interested in being an important movie, or being anything other than a well-crafted, thoughtful piece of entertainment.

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