07 June 2009

ALL YOU NEED IS A GIRL AND A GUN

The 1966 gangster film Tokyo Drifter is an admitted influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and it is good to be precise about that phrasing, since once you've admitted that something is an influence, you can no longer be accused of flat-out plagiarism. For the influence is, shall we say, not all that subtle, right from the opening moments in which a hitman is beaten for the satisfaction of a gangleader whose face we pointedly never see, all in high-contrast black-and-white that bursts into color once the film proper begins; to the use of bright, solid color backgrounds during fighting scenes, among dozens of shots that just simply have the same general layout and vibe between the two movies. On the other hand, Kill Bill wasn't aiming for the same goals as Tokyo Drifter; the later film was all kind of parody and reference and homage wrapped up in one, where the earlier work is and is meant to be nothing at all more than an absolutely gorgeous pop art thriller, something like a Japanese answer to the French New Wave (specifically something like a Japanese answer to Jean-Pierre Melville as directed by Jean-Luc Godard in his A Woman Is a Woman phase). And as pop art goes, Tokyo Drifter could hardly be any more fiendishly entertaining than it manages in its fleet 83-minute frame.

I could here recap the plot; but why bother? The scenario will do just as well, and that scenario is: Boss Kurata (Kita Ryuji), a Yakuza leader in Tokyo, has taken his gang straight, and now they're making money in real esate; rival Boss Otsuka (Esumi Hideaki) doesn't buy it; Otsuka's main lieutenant, Tatsu "The Viper" (Kawaji Tamio) is more than happy to keep harassing the Kurata gang; Kurata's lieutenant, practically his adopted son, Tetsu (Watari Tetsuya) is happy to go straight since it means more time to spend with his ladylove, Chiharu (Matsubara Chieko); Otsuka desires Tetsu in his organisation, but fears the young man's ability to derail his schemes. About two-thirds through the film, Tetsu is required to leave to go hide in the country, a drifter from Tokyo as it were, and this is the point where things get really violent and destructive for everyone involved.

With that kind of set-up, you'd probably imagine that Tokyo Drifter could be about the life of a career criminal, the mind of a man who wants to give up violence, the terror of losing everything familiar and starting fresh in a new place, the desire for bloody revenge. And you'd be right: it could be about all of those things at once, except that it is about none of them. Instead, Tokyo Drifter is about awesome - a full-on sensory experience that passes from your eyes directly to the part of your brain responsible for making your jaw hang open, effortlessly cool in every frame. It's the kind of film that a lot of people deride as style trumping content, except that in this case, style is content: the point of the movie, in a very real sense, is that it distills the aesthetic of the 1960s into one feature-length blast.

We should expect no less from director Suzuki Seijun, a man with such devotion to the idea of cinema as experience, and with so little use for narrativity, that after making Branded to Kill the year after Tokyo Drifter, he was sued by the Nikkatsu studio for making an incoherent and therefore unmarketable film. I can see where that would be a problem for some people, especially if those people were executives responsible for getting the cost of producing a film back at the box office. But I can only feel so much sympathy for that point of view, given how excessively satisfying it is to be on the receiving end of Suzuki's stylegasmic excess.

This is a phenomenally candy-colored film, shot on that wonderful Japanese stock from the 1960s with the really lurid saturation (if you've seen any of the earlier color Godzilla pictures, it's that stuff). As Tetsu walks the streets of Tokyo, he passes by garishly bright billboards and people in equally garish clothes; he spends most of his free time in a club that has no apparent decoration other then being drenched, floor to ceiling and wall to wall, in electric yellow. Colors like we see in Tokyo Drifter happen nowhere in real life, which is why Suzuki had to go and invent them for his movie, which is practically Surrealist in its otherworldly palette. The justification is nothing other than the film's sheer drop-dead gorgeousness, which fortunately happens to be justification enough.

The other thing that marks the film as a triumph of being absolutely wonderful to look at is the action sequences, shot with a geometric precision that calls to mind, as God is my witness, the work of Mizoguchi Kenji, and for a similar reason: Mizoguchi's approach to cinema, based on rectangles and lateral camera moves and carefully-defined frames, is steeped in the visual language of traditional Japanese art - Suzuki's too, although in his case, the art in question isn't traditional anything, but rather the altogether 20th Century form of the comic book. I mean that seriously: with its outrageous colors, diagram-like imagery, and physically absurd gunfights, Tokyo Drifter captures the feeling of a really fun, trashy pulp comic better than any other movie I can think of.

And so, back to pop art. Everything wonderful about Tokyo Drifter is almost defiantly meaningless, except in that it is totally cool; for example, during a fight scene in front of a white screen, suddenly and completely without motivation, the screen is backlit in the most urgent shade of cherry red. It is a pointless thing, but it makes the fight that much more full of awesome, and Suzuki is particularly aware of what awesome looks like in a movie. Yet, what is this "meaningless"? does it devalue the film that it has no real element other than style and gangster sheen? Certainly not; the totality with which the film dedicates itself to that aesthetic gives it a value all its own, the value of a film that boils down all of the trappings of a moment and a look into their purest expression. The movie is Cool, it embodies Cool, and its very soul is Cool and nothing else - a very different thing indeed than being soullessly cool, although the difference is easier to perceive than to describe. At any rate, it's a perfectly beautiful and stylish exercise, and within those deliberate limits it is as perfectly crafted as any film ever has been.

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