Japangangster1966 color 83 min.
Director: Seijun Suzuki
CLV: $49.95 - available
1 disc, catalog # CC1514L

VHS: available from Home Vision Cinema

Untitled Document

To experience a film by Japanese B movie visionary Suzuki Seijun is to experience Japanese cinema in all its frenzied, voluptuous excess. Born in Tokyo in 1923, Suzuki is best known for a cycle of extraordinary yakuza (gangster) movies he shot during the '60s, movies teaming with stone-faced killers, tough whores and unforgettable femmes fatales. Borm Suzuki Seitaro, the director renamed himself Suzuki Seijun in 1958, two years after starting work for Japan's oldest studio, Nikkatsu, where he churned out B movies such as Satan's Town, Young Breasts, The Naked Girl and the Gun, and the florid melodrama, Love Letter. A heartfelt, Sirk-like bauble frothing with style, Love Letter showed a director beginning to strain against genre convention; four years later that strain had turned into a full-scale revolt. In 1963, Suzuki began a series of remarkable features for Nikkatsu, each roiling with moments of pure delerium characterized by blasts of lurid color, goofball humor, helter-skelter angles and the director's own barely restrained contempt for conformity.

Suzuki's films made money and enjoyed some critical attention, but Nikkatsu grew increasingly irratated with the director's flights of outrageous fancy. In 1966, the studio ordered him to toe the aesthetic line with Tokyo Drifter, an ostensibly routine potboiler about a recently retired yakuza. The result is thrilling -- a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, fantasia in which the hero gangsters, Tetsu (Watari Tetsuya, who pouts as beautifully as he fights) tries to go straight but is thwarted by his former rivals every step of the way.

No wonder Suzuki went nuts: in a sense, he was shooting his own autobiography. From its opening melee (tinted a bilious green) to its last showdown (which looks like an outtake from a late-era MGM musical), Tokyo Drifter astonishes with style, even as it hammers home points about the struggle of individualism. Suzuki made just two more pictures for Nikkatsu, Fighting Elegy and Branded to Kill, after which the studio fired him for making "incomprehensible" movies. The director won a lawsuit against Nikkatsu a few years later, and has since gone on to direct five independently financed features, including the critically acclaimed Zigeunerweisen.

One of the ironies about Suzuki is that he and other Japanese B directors have been neglected in the West for many years, in part because of the critical favor lavished on specific Japanese auteurs, including Ozu and Mizoguchi. One of Japan's leading critics, Todao Sato, however, makes a strong case for Suzuki as an auteur in his own right. Dubbing him a gesakusha, "a humorist whose roots date back to the popular comical liturature of the Edo period," Sato locates radical logic in the director's wild style. Like others of his wartime generation, Suzuki took refuge from Japan's militarism in a doctrine of mutability. "For Suzuki Seijun, who had lived amid annihilation, it was necessary to virw oneself objectively, even to the point where mutability appeared pathetic and humorous at the same time." Adds Saro, "it was even necessary to discover a certain masochistic pleasure in the abnormal experience that shook one's core," which is why his best films resemble a "masochistic cartoon." High praise indeed.

--Manohla Dargis

Manohla Dargis is the film editor for the LA Weekly.



Hondo Tetsuya ... Watari Tetsuya

Chiharu ... Matsubara Chieko

Aizawa Kenji ... Nitani Hideaki

Tatsuzo ... Kawachi Tamio

Keiichi ... Yoshida Tsuyoshi

Kurata ... Kita Ryuji


Director ... Suzuki Seijun

Producer ... Nakagawa Tetsuro

Screenwriter ... Kawauchi Yasunori

Cinematographer ... Mine Shigeyoshi

Editor ... Inoue Shinya

Production Designer ... Kimura Takeo

Assistant Director ... Kuzuu Masami

Music ... Kaburagi So



Criterion presents the American premiere in a lush color transfer from the original Nikkatsu-scope master.

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