Tokyo Drifter is a 1966 Yakuza movie directed by Seijun Suzuki. It follows the story of Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo, an ex-yakuza member who struggles to leave the criminal lifestyle behind after his boss Kurata decides to disband his clan. As the clan’s rival family, led by a man named Otsuka, gears up to move in on Kurata’s turf, Tetsuya is convinced to become a drifter (vagabond) for the greater good.
Tokyo Drifter is often cited as a must-see, cult classic. It’s a highly stylized and visually striking movie, with an iconic soundtrack that blends a mix of traditional Japanese music and upbeat rock & roll together. From the beginning of his career in 1956 to 2005, Seijun Suzuki has directed 49 films and Tokyo Drifter is regularly cited as one of his greatest movies.
How Was Tokyo Drifter Received Critically?
Although considered a cult classic today, Tokyo Drifter was not well-received upon its initial release in Japan and could even be called a commercial failure. The film did not satisfy the tastes of critics at the time and the movie performed poorly at the box office.
With the film being produced by Nikkatsu studio (better known for putting out more conventional & commercially appealing films), it’s possible that Tokyo Drifter was considered a departure from the studio’s usual standard of work, thus defying expectations and contributing to its initial poor reception.
Tokyo Drifter exhibits a highly stylized & unconventional visual style which was likely too avant-garde and experimental at the time for audiences who were used to more traditional Japanese films. The film is also non-linear and quite complex at times, which would have been unappealing to some viewers.
A year after Tokyo Drifter, in 1967, Suzuki would create Branded to Kill. This was an even more experimental movie, which would prompt Nikkatsu studio officials to fire the director stating that his movies “made no sense and no money.” He would not direct another movie for 10 years following this departure.
Since its initial release and mixed reception, Tokyo Drifter has gained a cult classic status and is now often praised for its bold, visionary style and innovative storytelling. Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, for example, stated that Tokyo Drifter was Suzuki’s “most remarkable film”.
About the Director – Seijun Suzuki
Born on May 24, 1923, in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Seijun Suzuki was a Japanese film director, screenwriter & actor.
Suzuki’s filmography stretches from the mid-1950s to 2005, but he took a significant 10-year break from filmmaking between 1967 & 1977. Suzuki was disgraced and blacklisted by the Nikkatsu film studio after releasing a highly experimental Yakuza movie named Branded to Kill. During this time, Suzuki took odd jobs to survive.
By today’s standards, Seijun Suzuki is considered one of history’s most influential and ground-breaking Japanese filmmakers. Whilst his later films have not been as well received as his earlier work has, he’s still created a number of cult classics including Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill & Zigeunerweisen. His work has had a significant impact on the Japanese film industry and helped to influence a generation of future filmmakers.
Suzuki sadly passed away on February 13, 2017, at the age of 93. He died of lung cancer which he had been receiving treatment for several months prior to his death.
Other Yakuza Movies by Seijun Suzuki
Seijun Suzuki has released several other movies in the Yakuza Movie genre. Here are some examples.
- Branded to Kill
- Youth of the Beast
- Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!