Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Colour me beautiful

Tokyo Drifter/
Tokyo nagaremono
(Dir: Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

I wrote before about Suzuki's last movie for Nikkatsu, Branded To Kill, and how the restrictions under which the studio made him work were the direct result of the lunatic excess he'd brought to his previous offerings. It makes sense to work backwards, Memento-style, and find out what it was that got his bosses choking on their tempura.

Tokyo Drifter is a yakuza (gangster) movie, but it's got the sort of set-up that could just as easily have come out of a Warner gangster flick from 30 years before. It's the story of Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), who wants to turn his back on his hoodlum past, but finds the ties of loyalty are too great.

That much I got. But once this fairly run-of-the-mill concept is in place, the viewer is cut adrift. Wild and crazy jump cuts take you from the city to the snowy north; from a funky nightclub to the inside of an incinerator; from an identikit apartment to some kind of massive, sweeping performance space occupied by a singer, a pianist, and too many men with guns. Characters appear through circular portholes or from behind pillars, and disappear through gaps where the floor should be. Each scene is colour-coded, in intense, brash hues: the kids frug groovily on a purple floor; their more sedate elders sip martinis amidst Van Gogh yellow. Anarchy is signalled by a multicoloured, cowboy-style saloon, heralding choreographed mob violence against a bunch of innocent gaijin extras that Suzuki appears to have picked up off the street. The climactic shoot-out, meanwhile, is all in white. Cleanse. Purge. Redemption.

The colour-coding extends to the main characters; Tetsu's sky-blue suit echoes the shades of the living room, and the suburban normality to which he really yearns to return. But, as the theme song puts it, he's doomed to be "a drifter, the man from Tokyo". And I want a Charm Lady hairdryer like she's got and I want one now.

Imagine if John Woo made a movie, and asked Jean-Luc Godard to edit it (while listening to Ornette Coleman on an anachronistic iPod) and Peter Greenaway to design it, using a few leftover sets from the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound. It's cartoonish, in the best sense of the word; a genre possibly flagged up by the manga comic read by the woman with the annoying laugh. Christ knows what she was doing there, but I was glad when she got shot. Oops. I mean *SPOILER ALERT*. Not that it matters, of course. Just forget the plot, because it looks as if Suzuki did. Inhale deeply and damn the suits of Nikkatsu for hobbling this deranged genius.

P.S. I've just discovered that, earlier in his career, Suzuki directed a B-movie called Young Breasts. I want to see this film more than I want Pompey to avoid relegation.

Update, 1.15 pm: P.P.S. For more considered perspectives on Suzuki, go here and here, at Matthew Dessem's excellent Criterion Contraption.

Update, 11.43 am, 30 March: P.P.P.S. And if you want to read about a movie that makes Suzuki's oeuvre look restrained to the point of timidity, go here. I've changed my mind. I want to see this more than I want to see Young Breasts.


Peter Nellhaus said...

Tokyo Drifter was my introduction to Suzuki. I love the monochrome rooms and the dance club scene that seems to totally random. I've now tried to see every film I could by Suzuki. My favorite is Youth of the Beast. Suzuki is what Tarantino or Austin Powers dream they could be.

Tim Footman said...

But Peter - have you seen Young Breasts?

Peter is behind the excellent Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee site, people. Go there.