Tokyo Drifter

Seijun Suzuki knew how to work fast and cheap. As a contract director for Japan’s Nikkatsu studio in the 1950s and ’60s, Suzuki cranked out yakuza thrillers, juvenile-delinquent melodramas, pop musicals, and other lowbrow entertainments at the rate of four, five, even six movies a year. Like fellow low-budget auteurs Mario Bava and Edgar G. Ulmer, he fought an endless creative battle against the formulaic scripts he was handed, and over the years a growing surrealistic bent began to alienate him from his bosses at Nikkatsu. All this month Gene Siskel Film Center has been revisiting Suzuki’s rocky last years at the studio, from Smashing the O-Line (1961) to Branded to Kill (1967), which would be recognized as a masterpiece but also cost him his job. Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Fighting Elegy (1966), showing this week, were both made when Nikkatsu, hoping to rein in Suzuki’s extravagant visuals, cut his production budgets. But as with Bava and Ulmer, financial constraints only pushed Suzuki to more ingenious, imaginative, and expressive extremes.

Suzuki’s troubles with the studio dated back to Youth of the Beast (1963), a gangland drama pulsing with black humor and avant-garde streaks (one tense confrontation takes place in a room behind a movie screen, where the action of a black-and-white feature merges with the gangsters’ real-life encounter). Gate of Flesh (1964) and Story of a Prostitute (1965), adapted from novels by Taijiro Tamura and informed by Suzuki’s own experiences in the Imperial Japanese Army, offered a more adult treatment of sex than Japanese viewers then expected, plus more experimental flourishes (in the latter movie, the title character screams in anguish but sound and image separate as Suzuki slows down the onscreen action but the soundtrack plays on). His subsequent sex comedy Carmen From Kawachi (1966) provoked the studio even further, and Suzuki was forced to make Tokyo Drifter, the sort of gangster story he could direct in his sleep, on a shoestring budget.

Handed this challenge, Suzuki responded with a film whose hallucinatory quality grows out of its empty spaces. Tokyo Drifter tells the story of a yakuza thug whose boss has decided to go legit; much of the action takes place at a nightclub owned by the boss, which Suzuki and art director Takeo Kimura conjure with an empty soundstage, a white piano, a couple of freestanding pillars, and a pair of left- and right-hand staircases leading up to a landing and an arched doorway. The key ingredient is light: at one point the bottom of the room is lit brilliantly white while the top is bathed in yellow, and later a yellow base is highlighted with red, blue, and purple spotlights. Throughout the movie, empty space turns out to be more malleable and psychologically potent than any expensive set.

Geometry is another free resource for the hard-pressed filmmaker, and Suzuki exploits it to the hilt. He never misses an opportunity to film the boss behind wooden latticework that carves up his image into a checkerboard. In the nightclub, a square of clear plastic in the ceiling reveals the stepping feet of patrons dancing in the room above. Many scenes take place in a train yard whose tracks recede into the distance, creating hard angles inside the frame; in one shot the end of a standing train car bisects the frame between the hero, hiding on one side, and an assassin, stalking him on the other. Fighting Elegy includes a scene of rebellious students clashing with their teacher in the classroom; as they chant at him, Suzuki blacks out the left half of the frame to isolate the students, then the right half to isolate the teacher, back and forth, the rhythm of the chant driving the flicker effect.

Fighting Elegy was shot in black and white, another punitive measure on Nikkatsu’s part, but by then Suzuki had returned to the offbeat sexual themes that upset the studio at least as much as his experimental tendencies. The hero, a young Catholic, nurses an infatuation with his landlady’s virginal daughter; this pushes him into sin when he jerks off in the shadows, a crucifix on the wall boldly framed by a tight spotlight. By the end Fighting Elegy has threatened to turn into Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 British satire If . . . . , with rioting schoolboys flinging coins and roller-skating down the halls.

Suzuki would enjoy a comeback in the 80s and 90s, as his reputation caught up to him and he began making movies on something closer to his own terms. The Film Center series concludes with his dazzling Pistol Opera (2001), which recapitulates some of the themes of the yakuza movies and includes some of his most eye-popping visions (“I can’t think of another film I’ve seen since that has afforded me more unbridled sensual pleasure,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in these pages). By that time everyone understood that the real outlaw all along was the guy behind the camera.  v