“Money and power rule now, honour means nothing” according to the new bread of upstarts gangsters in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Tokyo Nagaremono). In many ways, what separates Nikkatsu’s youthful crime movies from Toei’s yakuza epics is that the nobility of Toei’s heroes is rarely questioned. In a Toei movie, it’s the world that’s wrong because the code is good and should be obeyed just as the hero obeys it, but in a Nikkatsu picture nihilism rules. The code isn’t right either, in fact it’s just another tool to manipulate and the hero, while noble, is wrong to follow it.
That is in essence how Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) will end up a Tokyo drifter, caught between the old world and a new consumerist Japan in which even the yakuza is attempting to corporatise and reform its image. His old boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), has done just that only he’s had to take out a sizeable loan from another former gangster turned real estate agent, Yoshii (Michio Hino), to do it. Realising his weakness, the upstart Otsuka gang sees an opportunity and stages an elaborate ruse that allows them to get their hands on Kurata’s valuable building and take out Yoshii at the same time though it results in Yoshii’s secretary (Tomoko Hamakawa), also the girlfriend of one of the Otsuka gang, getting caught in the crossfire.
Tetsu describes his relationship with Kurata as like father and son and is sure he would never betray him. To preserve their new image, Tetsu does not fight back when ambushed by Otsuka goons and even puts himself on the hook for the secretary’s murder, but as much as Kurata insists he wouldn’t betray one of his “kids” to make things easier for himself perhaps he will if the situation calls for it. A defector from Otsuka’s gang, Shooting Star (Hideaki Nitani), tries to warn Tetsu that his faith in ideals like duty and loyalty is misplaced but Tetsu refuses to believe him. “Don’t shatter my dreams” Tetsu pleads, claiming that he cannot be around someone with “no sense of duty”.
Tetsu even feels sorry for Shooting Star, attributing his melancholy air to his having lost his sense of purpose in his disillusionment with post-war gangsterism. He might have a point in Shooting Star’s world weariness, but fails to realises that Shooting Star does in fact have a sense of duty and is in some ways the film’s only truly free man in forging it for himself from basic humanitarian values if tinged with a degree of cynicism. Though the pair clash, Shooting Star claims that he wants to save Tetsu from the pain of his inevitable betrayal and the disillusionment that will eventually come with it rendering him a perpetual wanderer and exile from mainstream society.
Both men are in a sense lost amid the rapid social changes of their era, unable to move on from the post-war past into the new society even after breaking with the yakuza code in order to live by their own. In Suzuki’s complex colour scheme, Shooting Star is always clad in a forest-like green which echoes his freedom, while Otsuka is represented by a bloody red, and Tetsu dressed in an innocent powder blue suit until the final confrontation in which, along with his equally innocent love interest Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) who had previously been associated with the colour yellow, is dressed in a pure white while all around him are now in black as representatives of those who have succumbed to the amoral capitalism of the the contemporary society.
Suzuki even has Tetsu walk down an arched corridor reminiscent of a church into an abstract space expanding the stage at the club to lend this moment of existential struggle a little more theatricality. In a sense what Tetsu does is an act of suicide, severing his ties to the yakuza world by smashing Kurata’s glass and killing at least the image of him as a father figure to become a new man or perhaps a wandering ghost who no longer has a home and must even give up his romance with Chiharu in an acknowledgement of his exile. On Otsuka’s death, it’s almost like an alarm is switched off in the sudden shift from red to white in the giant statue standing behind Chiharu, the survivors united in white but rather than the wedding suggested by the colour of their clothes the atmosphere is funereal as Tetsu accepts he can no longer stay in this temporary space and must enter another sort of purgatory as lonely wander comforted only by his newfound freedom.
Tokyo Drifter screens at Japan Society New York on Feb. 4 as part of the Seijun Suzuki Centennial.
Original trailer (English subtitles)