Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) is a young gangster loyal to his boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). Kurata has decided to go straight and Tetsuya with him. Tetsuya earns the ire of rival gang leader Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), by refusing to join with them. Things are further complicated by a real estate deal involving a third boss, Ishii. Tensions run high and bullets start to fly, leading to a number of deaths. Kurata tells Tetsu to leave Tokyo and his singer girlfriend, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), and head north. But trouble is never far behind and he soon finds his loyalties being tested.
With constraints on both time and money, director Suzuki managed to create up a film that has all the razzle-dazzle pop elements associated with the 1960’s generation alongside the unpredictable violence of the gangster genre. The story, by Yasunori Kawauchi, is straightforward enough, introducing several main players and a series of dodgy deals and double-crosses. Tetsuya is a likeable hero, sharp-suited and sharp-shooting, and Tetsuya Watari brings an effortless cool to the role in keeping with the youthful feel of the film. Suzuki uses colour to great effect and in a way that might at first seems at odds with the genre. Gone are murky hideouts and chiaroscuro lighting associated with the yakuza, replaced by brightly lit rooms painted in garish colours. There is comic-strip style to both the story and the staging, which, alongside some unusual editing, musical-like sequences of the main character singing the theme song, give the film a peculiarly tongue-in-cheek feel. It is a film that waltzes light-footed through the genre, absolutely nailing the most thrilling aspects of yakuza stories, while at the same time being a one-of-a-kind piece . The music by Hajime Kaburagi picks out the upbeat and enjoyable vibe of the film, with a jazz and pop infused score.
“Tokyo Drifter” deals with several themes familiar to the yakuza genre, primarily ideas of honour and the difficulty in breaking out of a life of crime. Tetsuya is a man who shows utter loyalty to his boss, who is like a surrogate father to him, in a world where loyalty is often poorly rewarded. His choice of profession means that he is doomed to be an outsider, unable to form significant relationships with others. This is typified in his interactions with Chiharu, who he is forced to abandon when things become too dangerous. Where “Tokyo Drifter” succeeds is in its depiction of the period. The stark contrast of colourful discotheques and the bright lights of the city with the lonely hideaways of the yakuza gives the sense of youth culture going on above the surface while underground the old rivalries persist. The film’s primary aim is to entertain. It is pulp entertainment elevated to an art form by a director with boundless creativity who doesn’t take himself or his art too seriously.