Seijun Suzuki’s Classic New-Wave Gangster Films: ‘Tokyo Drifter’ and ‘Branded to Kill’

Fans of classic yakuza films and Japanese new-wave cinema have reason to celebrate today with Criterion’s release of Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 Tokyo Drifter, and his 1967 Branded to Kill.

Tokyo Drifter is a day-glo noir explosion. Suzuki creates a cut-and-paste pastiche of pop art, genre types and tropes, and swinging dance clubs, all strung together on the most tenuous of plot threads. After his gang disbands to go legit, Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is a man without a cause, though he remains steadfastly loyal to his old boss and his crew’s attempts to keep it on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately for Tetsu, circumstances won’t allow him to leave, and when another gang steps in and rocks the boat, Tetsu is sucked back into the fray.

In a world full of dapper bad guys in black suits who wear dark sunglasses at all times, Tetsu stands out, dressed in pastel blue with white shoes and a baby face. Full of crime movie staples like betrayal and revenge, Tokyo Drifter, and Tetsu, drift around Japan, doggedly pursued by his enemies, while his code of strict devotion causes him nothing but grief and heartbreak. It’s an avant-garde gangster film set up to parody gangster films, with a healthy dose of western essentials thrown in to muddy the waters even more. Case in point, there’s a bar fight in a western-themed bar, complete with swinging doors and swinging Japanese hipsters.

Suzuki’s film is more of an aesthetic experiment that borders on the surreal and the absurd. Every set is spotless and could have come straight out of a prefabricated box with minimal assembly required. The nightclub where the climactic scene takes place is almost empty and blank, a near wasteland contained inside of what appears to be an expansive shoebox. Stylized framing, brilliant swatches of color, and a story that jumps from place to place with little time or effort spent to establish anything, combine to create a movie that is as dazzling as it is baffling and incomprehensible.

Tokyo Drifter is an artifact of the era, a synthesis of popular culture, and, more than a little, a middle finger to the increasingly strict regulations the studio placed on Suzuki. He would in fact be fired upon delivering his next film, Branded to Kill, to Nikkatsu, the studio where he spent the bulk of his career.

In contrast to the vivid color palate of Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki’s follow-up, Branded to Kill, is a bleak, black and white exploration of a fetishistic hitman and his obsessive quest to move up the list of professional contract killers and dethrone the mysterious Number One.

Branded to Kill bears similar surrealist touches to Tokyo Drifter. Hanada (Joe Shishido), the protagonist, needs the smell of boiling rice to become sexually aroused. Misako (Annu Mari), a suicidal rival assassin and love interest, fixates on death, adorning her apartment with nightmarish strands of dead butterflies, and dangles a dead sparrow from her rearview mirror. Both films showcase Suzuki’s trademark disinterest in linear plot, coherent editing, and establishing shots. It’s not uncommon to leap directly from one scene into another with little or no transition.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Overall, though, Branded to Kill is much darker in tone and story. Sexual appetites and cruelty play a large part, especially in the relationship between Hanada and his wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), who taunts and betrays her husband. After blowing an assignment Hanada, a former teetotaler (as he says, “Booze and women kill a killer”), descends into an alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown and hell of despair and paranoia.

Branded to Kill has a brutal mean streak that accompanies Hanada’s hallucinatory journey of lost love, obsession, betrayal, and vengeance. Twisted deaths abound, including burnings and multiple toilet related fatalities. But a wicked sense of humor also runs through the film, as when Hanada, after completing a hit, escapes on the top of a rising hot air balloon.

Suzuki’s hand is readily apparent in Branded to Kill, everywhere from his intricate shot composition to his paper-thin plot and near nonexistent character motivation. At this stage in his career you can tell that he’s done with the genre where he made his name, and is having a grand time poking at conventions and defying expectations, no matter what his orders from above. Consequences be damned.

Because both of these are Criterion releases, if you imagine that there is a glut of bonus material to peruse, you wouldn’t be wrong. Both discs feature new hi-def transfers that look great and capture Suzuki’s quirky visual style, and more thorough translations on the subtitle front. There are interviews with Suzuki himself, as well as with other key players, most notably Joe Shishido. Some of the extras are new to these packages, while some have appeared on previous home versions.

Like many Criterion releases, each one comes with a booklet that features an in depth essay about that particular film, and as usual, these are my favorite parts. Film critic Howard Hampton contributes a paper on Tokyo Drifter that discusses the film as a piece of pop-art. Critic and historian Tony Rayns’ essay in the Branded to Kill release explores the details surrounding Suzuki’s dismissal from Nikkatsu, and with the impact the film had on his break with the studio.

RATING 7 / 10