[Deep Focus]
TOKYO DRIFTER

BRANDED TO KILL

GRADE: B+
(Tokyo Drifter)

GRADE: A
(Branded to Kill)
Tokyo Drifter

Here in America, we tend to look at Japanese film through a keyhole. Mostly, we venerate Akira Kurosawa, who catalyzed the feedback loop that changed the way Westerners thought of the western. Consider, after all, that Kurosawa adapted Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest into Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune as a sly Samurai who, counter to the Samurai code of loyalty to one's master, played both sides of a conflict for all they were worth. Yojimbo, in turn, was knocked off by Sergio Leone in his spaghetti western remake, A Fistful of Dollars, which launched Clint Eastwood's career. American film was never the same.

Serious students and buffs will recognize a few more names, such as Ozu and Mizoguchi, and maybe Teshigahara. Contemporary hipsters may venerate the cooler-than-Eastwood stylistics of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine and Hana-Bi), or the cyberpunk nightmares of Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo, Tokyo Fist). And, of course, the hardcore anime fans probably log more hours with Japanese cinema than anyone else on this side of the Pacific.

But if you ever wondered what else has been going on in Japan for all these years, it's worth taking a look at B-movie director Suzuki Seijun, who cranked out no fewer than 42 flicks in just 12 years at Japan's Nikkatsu Corporation. His Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill have just been issued on widescreen videocassettes as well as on Criterion laserdiscs that include an interview with the director. They're gangster, or yakuza films, and they're unmistakably Japanese. The legend of the lone samurai warrior lives on in the more contemporary myth of the gangster; indeed, Melville's French gangster movie Le Samourai was a contemporary of Seijun's very modern yakuza pictures.

Bear in mind that these films were made for a company that released two films a week, and asked its directors to shoot and edit their picture in just 28 days. What's most striking about them is their sheer capacity for invention. They look unlike any B-movies ever made. Costume and set design, Suzuki says, are the most important influences on a film's performers, and Tokyo Drifter doesn't fail its stars. The film's sudden bursts of violence take place in lavish, spacious sets that evoke the color-coordinated spirit of a Technicolor musical -- Tetsu wears a gorgeously absurd powder-blue suit that matches the decor like something from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You have to wonder what all this might have looked like if Suzuki were given some real money to play with.

Tetsu (Watari Tetsuya) is the drifter of the title, a former killer devoted to his boss Kurata, who has decided to go straight. When violence flares, Tetsu leaves the old neighborhood in an attempt to keep from being drawn back into the life. Of course, he can't escape the past. Considerations of loyalty and responsibility ensue alongside fight scenes and shootouts in a variety of locales. The classical composition within the scope frame underscores Tokyo Drifter's status as a work of Japanese film art; such touches as the gratuitous footage of teenagers grooving to hip tunes in a local nightspot reminds us of the pervasive influence of Western culture. The campy touches clue us in that Suzuki doesn't expect us to take his films too seriously. Entertainment is first on his mind.

For all its saturated colors and wild set pieces -- including a stops-out barroom brawl that climaxes with the literal collapse of the saloon -- Tokyo Drifter looks positively mundane compared to the bleak, black and white Branded to Kill. Shot through with noir stylings, Branded to Kill follows "Number Three Killer" Hanada Goro (Shishido Joe), who eventually winds up in a physical and psychological death match with the legendary "Number One." But, like an ordinary schlep, he's got problems. His wife is sleeping with his boss. He has doubts about his fitness as a killer. He falls in love with Misako (Mari Annu), a beautiful woman who picks him up when his car breaks down on the road. (You can tell she's a death chick because she's got a dead bird with a pin through its neck hanging from her rear view mirror.) Before long, she's hired Hanada for a contract killing.

But Hanada botches the job when a butterfly lands on the muzzle of his gun. Such an error puts his life in jeopardy, not to mention his Number Three status. Hanada's reserving a seat on the next flight out of Tokyo when his wife tries to kill him. Bruised, bloody, and humilited, Hanada flees back to Misako, whose walls are covered with pinned butterflies. It's all part of a long, surrealistic sequence about sex, death, and impotence that follows along the logic of dreams, and it's a knockout. David Lynch wishes he came up with shit like this.

I spent my time gaping happily at the screen. It took me a second viewing of Branded to Kill to figure out exactly what the hell was going on -- a first look at this picture is well nigh overwhelming. Perhaps sensing as much, Nikkatsu promptly fired Suzuki, who was still under contract, for shooting films that they said made no sense and no money. Suzuki actually sued the studio, getting himself blacklisted from the Japanese studio system for more than a decade. So much for grace under pressure.

Mark Rance, who co-produced Criterion's laserdiscs with Michelle Golden, has included footage of interviews he conducted with Suzuki in 1997, discussing Suzuki's career and his thoughtful but wholly unpretentious theories of film. Both discs are letterboxed, and the colors of Tokyo Drifter are particularly striking on laser. The Branded to Kill LD includes an amusing archive of Shishido Joe movie posters, culled from the collection of avant-jazz wonder John Zorn. Both discs, but especially Branded to Kill, are highly recommended glimpses into a world of genre film that we couldn't have known existed.


TOKYO DRIFTER
Directed by Suzuki Seijun
Written by Kawauchi Yasunori
Cinematography by Mine Shigeyoshi
Production Design by Kimura Takeo
Edited by Inoue Shinya
Starring Watari Testuya, Matsubara Chieko, Nitani Hideaki, Kawachi Tamio, and Kita Ryuji
Japan, 1966

BRANDED TO KILL
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Written by Guryu Hachiro
Cinematography by Nagatsuka Kazue
Production Design by Kawahara Sukezo
Edited by Tanji Mutsuo
Starring Shishido Joe, Ogawa Mariko, Mari Annu, and Nanbara Koji
Japan, 1967

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