I meant to get to this a bit ago, obviously, but this review is in memorium to the dearly departed demon of cinema Seijun Suzuki.
Ever the stylistic wanderer, director Seijun Suzuki nonetheless never strayed too far from home: a theater of abstraction that relishes expressionist ghosts and bedevilment, Tokyo Drifter nonetheless incorporates a little social probing, if not strict social scrutiny, into its madness. Beneath, or via, his ten-thousand-watt stylistic bravado, Suzuki harnesses genre experimentation as an avenue for social dissent, conjuring the filmic equivalent of a cognitive blast of free expression, an unchained consciousness adhering to no social rules about how cinema ought to function. Tokyo Drifter is disorienting avant-pop, an orgasm of otherworldly ambition, but the aesthetic heaven it conjures is always in mortal conflict with earthly society and the political and social restraints thereof. Within lies the kernel of an immanent critique of Japanese honor and no-questions-asked loyalty.
Of course, the same issues were on the table for the Japanese old guard as well. But while Akira Kurosawa dabbled in the beat aesthetics of post-War Japan when he wasn’t busy excavating the last remnants of the jidaigeki genre, his classical professionalism was never as permissive to the particular brand of bedlam – modernist aesthetics warped to dark carnival mutation – that someone like Suzuki relishes. And this is to say nothing of the master of the ritualistic and the mundane – the very opposite of Suzuki’s shapeshifting mischief-maker – Yasujiro Ozu. By ’66, though, Ozu and Mizoguchi had passed into the nether and Kurosawa was trucking along in slightly less perceptive fashion (although he would rouse himself for a number of career highlights still to come). A new breed of unruly things from below emerged in Japanese cinema, playing hide and seek with more lascivious and violent visions of society. It was time for an impulse of indecorum to reign supreme.
Most importantly though, these new films boasted a voracious appetite for spasms of style, an iridescent attitude toward the world where space ought not adhere to any stable aesthetic principles. Thus, in Drifter, the mood swerves from ice-cold reptile to uncontrollable convulsions of stylistic heat on the drop of a dime. The list of highlights is endless: a grimy black-and-white introduction takes us out of the trenches and into the gutter, a brawl abutted with a crisp dichromatic red-white backdrop, malaria-yellow waiting rooms, fierce close-ups on sunglasses from the depths of hell, a melting pot of musical influences like a ruptured aria expelling fumes in every direction. If there was a kitchen sink, it would probably be fuschia. If Ozu and Mizoguchi were Kabuki, I suppose Suzuki is jazz by way of a mid-century pulp novel.
Even better, and as alluded to in the intro paragraph, the constant barrage of style is a weapon to brawl against social propriety. The heedless impetuousness of Suzuki’s film feels fearlessly rabid in its attitude toward decimating the social as well as the stylistic playbook. As with many ‘60s B-directors the world over, Suzuki’s films were twilight-zone alter-egos of the world, artistic acts of personalization and individuality designed to displace the homogenizing, anonymous screenplays he was often handed by company higher-ups.
The narrative isn’t far from this very question: the dominant thematic concern is whether freedom from social codes is really anything more than a self-deluded ruse, as more clandestine and implicit variations on the same rulebooks and codes persist modulated but unabated. The film’s protagonist Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) is a yakuza defector along with his boss, whom Tetsuya pays strict adherence to. A price put on their heads by a rival Yakuza boss, Hondo’s superior pretends to offer Tetsuya an out, allowing him the freedom to cast himself adrift as a wandering ronin free of the social shackles of Japanese society. All the while, however, Tetsuya’s boss is scheming to get in good with his rival by offering Tetsuya up to him on a silver platter. At the heart of the film, then, lies the question of whether the freedom of individualism, much like the stylistic uniqueness of Suzuki’s film, can be an escape from the rote routines and prefigured, static machinations of a society rooted in unflexible social bylaws that seem to manifest more perniciously when they are less overt and more malleable. The loose throngs of style and a bare adherence to causality promise a libratory freedom from the codes of cinema and society. They promise a future, but Suzuki’s films also partially suggests that this future is merely a superficial stylistic lacquer of freedom, that his own film is still keyed-in to the moral conservatism of the era, or worse, trading in strict social ritualism for rogue gung-ho individualism without a social conscience. That his protagonist is seemingly free but no less prey to the social energies, hidebound norms, and bureaucratic double-dealings around him demands the viewer ask whether Suzuki’s own stylish film can truly escape the conventions and normative moralities that choke the cinema of any nation and time period.
The film thus explores the essential contradiction of a rapidly westernizing Japanese mid-century society, where hyper-individualism had not necessarily eliminated ritualistic allegiance to social superiors but instead simply provided an unflappable mask of renewed opportunity. Stasis and kinesis, change and stagnation, and the inability to reconcile the two, might just eat a society alive. Individualism and newfound freedom, as is often the case, was simply a mirage or a lexicon for avoiding, and exacerbating, the social rot beneath it, and in this sense, Suzuki capably indicts American society, and the myth of democratic opportunity, rather than merely Japanese culture.
Admittedly, there are a great many films the world over with pointed ideas about the disharmonious conflagration of new and old, from the negotiation of imagination and social space amidst a modernist milieu in Tati’s delightful Playtime to the deliriously unhinged Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. Frankly, it would take a warmer reviewer than I to dare venture that Suzuki’s libertine stylistic fervor is a more incendiary puncturing of classical Japanese cinematic style than those films are to their respective societies. It might be tempting, in other words, to bask in overstatement with such a wonderfully hyperbolic, crazed film. To say that Suzuki’s radical stylistic omnivorousness is his attempt to tie the diorama compositions of Ozu and the unearthly glow of Mizoguchi to the conservative social mire of Japanese order. To argue that his film relishes a new moral playfulness. But, for one, the comparison would be unearned, particularly in light of Suzuki’s failure to move out of its genre corral like Ozu and Mizoguchi or to invite the various cross-currents of moral discomfort and cunning social critique that were already favored by those superior, more astute filmmakers. So it’s probably for the best that, provisory inflections of social malady aside, Suzuki’s film remains happy to function on its own terms as a dazzling concerto of multi-suggestive and always transitory, unkempt activity and comic filigrees rather than invite comparison to better, truly masterful films.
In other words, Tokyo Drifter achieves nothing any of those films don’t achieve with more preciseness and effect, nor is it a patch on Melville’s definitive Le Samourai, where the kind of avant-cool aesthetic both films traffic in mushroomed from merely rebellious to legitimately, almost philosophically deconstructive. Comparatively, the more primal, id-limned Drifter is like a style jukebox, making up for in exuberance what it lacks in judicious perception. Sometimes it even feels a little like an echo chamber, all of its pungent and undulating stylistic tremors speaking only to its personal ecstasy. This is fiercely individualistic, no doubt, but Drifter’s sojourn into an unfamiliar tongue is also fortuitously undercut by the eventual realization that the film can never truly jostle the structures of genre cinema to the breaking point. Suzuki’s film is, essentially, perpetually hot on the trail of its own imminent failure to escape its worldview: it is necessary to its understanding of the world that its own stylistic attempts to break out of the box, to unlock a black box of unmitigated stylistic and social opportunity, are partially futile. Indeed, the film is about a character whose merely-surface-level individualism embodies this very failure, about the inevitability of his and the film’s own slide into irrelevancy.
Basically, you have to squint to entirely commit to the argument that this sensory orgasm of a film is a commentary on the superfluous-chic aesthetic it dons and then augments, articulates, and accessorizes throughout. The sense in which this is really just stylistic shenanigans and not any meaningful social expose looms as large as the possibility that this truly is a venomous social tract. So it’s a contradictory film, one that probably isn’t best judged along a spectrum of failure to success. By its own admission, any success, any real escape from convention, would be a hollow ruse anyway. Bless it, at least, for going there, and for bearing none of the smug self-superiority that might be assumed based on Quentin Tarantino’s adoration. A more complete and clearly-argued film would probably be less interesting anyway.