Tokyo Drifter | Dir. Seijun Suzuki | Japan (1966)
Screening on Saturday, March 2, 2013 | 10:00 PM Eastern
TIFF Pacific Cinematheque
Knowing absolutely nothing about Seijun Suzuki and his famously eccentric filmmaking style, my roommate and I sat down this weekend to watch my review copy of Tokyo Drifter. We spent the first ten minutes in a minor confused state, changing first the contrast settings on the TV and then the colour and brightness but to no avail. We even switched media players, opting for the laptop over the DVD/VHS box–same result–a bizarrely overexposed black and white opening sequence in which the characters’ faces were completely black, like what you would see on a strip of film negative.
After more humming and hawing, we resorted to what any ordinary folk would do: we turned to Google to find out if this overexposure was intentional. And what do you know? Our dear film nerds over at Wikipedia provided the following assurance: “[t]he film opens in stylized black and white, which becomes vibrant color in all subsequent scenes.”
This funny experience left me wondering how an audience in the sixties would’ve reacted to this opening sequence in the theatre. Would they have been scratching their heads in confusion like me and my roommate, wondering if the projector in the theatre had gone wonky? They certainly wouldn’t have had smartphones back in the day to find out what the heck was going on with this film. Or maybe they would’ve expected something like this from Suzuki.
Apparently he kept on getting reprimanded by the producers at Nikkatsu studios for his bizarre visual style: failing to keep him in line, his overseers would keep on restricting his budget and eventually even forced him to shoot only in black and white, all of which only resulted in Suzuki finding more ways to infuriate his bosses through highly creative camera work and even more absurd and surrealist mise-en-scene.
This back-story to Suzuki’s creative anarchism makes me appreciate Tokyo Drifter even more. Don’t get me wrong. Though I was a bit confused by the opening sequence and initially chalked it up to technical difficulties, I more than enjoyed the rest of the film–in fact, I was squealing in delight throughout most of it.
What really makes the film memorable for me is Suzuki’s stylized set and costume design. Though the Wikipedia film nerds are right to point out that Tokyo Drifter transitions from black and white to vibrant colour sequences, I’d have to say that it is nothing like the ultra saturated colour schemes in Singing in the Rain or An American in Paris.
His use of colour is much more muted, and he always returns to emphasizing certain colours, which are then associated with certain characters: the villain, Otsuka, in a chestnut red; the love interest, Chiharu, in a creamy pastel yellow; and the hero, Tetsu, in a powder blue.
After watching this film, I’m left feeling a bit bemused as to why Suzuki’s studio felt the need to clamp down his use of colour. These colourful sets are wonderfully pretty and even quirky and fun. But I suppose that is the rule when it comes to conventional filmmaking: the audience is not really supposed to notice any elements of the film’s production over its plot–we are supposed to be sucked into the film’s narrative and not notice its stylization.
One last film nerdy thing I have to comment on would be Suzuki’s use of editing and camera angles. Having watched too much mainstream Hollywood movies and American television, I had to reorient my own visual literacy while watching this film. Typically a scene would provide an establishing shot to give the audience a sense of where the action is taking place, and if there is dialogue between characters, the camera usually zooms in so the audience can see the actors’ faces and reactions, what film nerds call the shot-reverse-shot technique.
When you watch Tokyo Drifter, often all you get is an establishing shot with the actors talking to each other or moving around in the shot–so no close-ups of the actors’ faces and reactions. It was a bit of an adjustment for me but that is what I most enjoyed about this film: it cheekily gave me ample opportunity to reflect on various aspects of film technique like cinematography and set design when most films and shows force us to pay attention to how a piece of dialogue is delivered or how bits of action unfold.
If you happen to be near Toronto this weekend, I highly recommend that you watch Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter on the big screen at TIFF this Saturday, March 2, 2013, at 10:00 PM Eastern, which is screening as part of their classic Japanese cinema retrospective, Tokyo Drifters: 100 Years of Nikkatsu. Of all the Nikkatsu films to choose from, be sure to check out this one concocted by their very own bad boy director.
Literary editor for Schema Magazine, Malissa is a second gen Canadian and third gen Sino-Vietnamese. A firm believer in the power of words and yoga, she is known for her unrestrained and infectious laugh. Her guilty pleasures include predictable crime shows, sexy legal dramas, dancing with wild abandon, and ethnic restaurants. She’s also finishing a PhD dissertation on Aboriginal-Chinese relations in Chinese Canadian literature. You can find her on Twitter @loudmouthAsian or on academia.edu.