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Japan, 1966 (MIFF 2000, Seijun Suzuki – Violence & Beauty)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

The Dark Side of Pop, a series of Japanese CDs, focuses on the weird songs recorded by movie stars, ex-boxers, gangsters and freaky-nobodies from the 60s and 70s. Many of them were huge; some went nowhere; all were 'incredibly strange'. Tokyo Drifter is a postcard from that uniquely Japanese cross-over between pop music and cinema. The film stars Idoru singer Tetsuya Watari, the film is like an extended video clip for his maudlin, twanging yakuza ballad. A gambler on the run from police and rival gangs, Tetsuya is a marked man. Much has been made about the use of his theme song throughout the film and how he sings and whistles it prior to gunning down hordes of rival gangsters—but don't forget that Suzuki's cinema grows from the country that gave us karaoke: singing publicly in seemingly inappropriate contexts is commonplace. Even though Tokyo Drifter is like a yakuza version of West Side Story, its innate sensibility emanates from Japan's cherishing of the ballad. Aesthetically, the film honours the ballad, and dresses its presence—the poses of its singer and the lustiness of the song's orchestration— ornately, lusciously, vividly. The many club, bar and office scenes are crucial to this in that much of the violence is doubly staged: deaths occur on gaudy sets, against wacky back-drops and in over-designed interiors. While the samurai genre is basically a network of tensions struck between the Bushido code and the samurai's nomadic release from deigned honour, the Yakuza genre explores the displaced terrain across which killers roam in search of meaning. Testuya's singing in Tokyo Drifter is the mournful refrain from that emotional ground; it is the sound of his unshed tears melting the snow.

See also...


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Some sequences in Story of a Prostitute are so achingly beautiful, they scar the mind. In fact, I would argue that Suzuki's most powerful films revolve around women. OK—so they re always ... More »


The global phenomenon of James Bond is an archetypal instance of 60s audiovisual brashness. The sheer loudness and pictorial noise of the first Bond films and their ironic self-consciousness ... More »


Jojini Mizuno is a disgraced ex-cop convicted for illicit dealings. He infiltrates two competing gangs with a secret agenda, setting mobster against mobster. Like a stubborn drunkard, he crashes his ... More »


Possibly Suzuki's most infamous film, Branded To Kill certainly retains its searing punch after repeated viewing. Curiously, it is also his least Pop Art and quivers with a heightened otherness ... More »


A Japanese widow goes as a mail-order bride to a Japanese archaeologist living deep in the Andes in a primitive Peruvian Indian village. She hates her life there, hates the Incan relics, hates the ... More »

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