The events depicted in Tokyo Drifter are violent and bloody, but they are often presented humorously or in a reflective manner. In the midst of the film's brutality, Suzuki consequently manages to arouse in the moviegoer an affecting awareness of both the depth and the absurdity of Tetsuya's emotions. Having been so engaged with the character's love, loyalty, anger, and discontent, the viewer is drawn into the strange world the director has crafted so that he loses himself in his savoring of the experience of watching the movie.
As profoundly as the director may be able to involve the viewer in the emotions of his characters, Suzuki's skillful evocation of these is not the film's only virtue. In fact, Tokyo Drifter is endowed with a remarkable visual beauty which greatly enhances the viewer's enjoyment of the feelings the movie elicits. Thanks to the various devices Suzuki has used to bring his fictional world to life, there is hardly a moment of the movie that is not stunning to see. Beginning in harsh black and white, the film soon blossoms into a brilliant panoply of colors, all the while revealing an eccentric but deliciously beautiful world composed of a number of invariably memorable places, which range from a snow covered village to a colorfully lit minimalistic club to a Wild West themed saloon. Each of these devices and elements contributes to the movie's odd, intoxicating style, and all, consequently, keep the viewer utterly captivated.
Even the individuals living in these strange, unearthly landscapes are somewhat different from the persons of the ordinary world and, by combining elegance, brutality, and quirkiness in all their various activities, help to infuse Tokyo Drifter with a rarefied loveliness which emphasizes the peculiar, exquisite disjunction of the movie from ordinary experience. In fact, all of Suzuki's wonderfully fascinating characters move about this lavish universe like dancers, their choreographed, deliberate, and often stylized actions frequently even being accompanied by music, and all, by their often fierce gracefulness, enhance the film's otherworldly beauty. When, for instance, either Tetsuya or his girlfriend sings, the viewer is reminded that he is engaged not with the real persons of his daily life but with characters in a work of art whose actions conform with the rules of their own world, not his.
This stylization allows Suzuki's film to have an impact a realistically made movie cannot. What would have been a banal story of gangsters is made into an intoxicating, balletic tale in which the simple events and characters depicted are transformed and given a remarkable profundity. Personalities, emotions, and conflicts are abstracted and universalized. The viewer is left not with an unimportant story about a petty, violent man, but with a tale of passion and discontent, accessible to any person of discernment.
Gorgeous, fascinating, and deftly realized, Tokyo Drifter is among the most important achievements of cinema as an artistic medium.
Review by Keith Allen
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