Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Tokyo Drifter

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 21, 2001

Why didn’t you kill me? Just for being kind, you’ll have to go to hell.

Special features


A quirky B-Grade mafia film from 1966 Japan’s 2-movie a week Nikkatsu studio and cult favorite Seijun Suzuki. Filmed in “original, glorious Nikkatsu-scope”.

DirectorSeijun Suzuki
WriterYasunori Kawauchi
Movie Rating6
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating5
  • Letterbox
Tokyo Drifter (menu)

The basic story is that Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) and his mafia boss, Kurakao, are trying to go straight. Kurakao has disbanded their mob, and only he and Tetsu remain. Of course, it doesn’t work out, as past rivals try to move in on the legal action that Kurakao has discovered. Tetsu has to leave his girl (Chiharu, played by Chieko Matsubara). Tetsu is a skilled professional, loyal to the core, matched with a much more cynical “Star Shooter” who tries to teach him that such loyalty is a waste. Chiharu, his girlfriend, is a club singer. The action progresses from traditional (western-style) nightclubs, through “modern” (for the time) dance floors, switching yards, and even an old west saloon. Tetsu, already a legendary hitman, shoots his way from scene to scene, never at rest because his reputation makes him too dangerous to let live.

A pretty basic storyline, and that’s what Nikkatsu wanted: a nice, simple, bloody, sexy B-grade mafia movie. They put out a half dozen movies a month, easy.

They should have known better. Director Seijun Suzuki had different ideas. He’d already made a number of movies that attempted to break the standard “B” movie mold that Nikkatsu wanted, and they were already angry with him. He turned a standard B-grade script into an oddly lush movie with faintly surreal sets, and a thing or two to say about toeing the organizational line.

Two movies, later, Nikkatsu would fire him for making “incomprehensible” movies.

This is a “Criterion Collection” DVD. It has only one extra, however; the only thing that really sets it apart from what you might otherwise expect as a standard old Japanese movie is the care that went into restoring the film. It looks like they’ve got it pretty well back to the same quality as originally filmed (not that I was around Japan when this movie first came out). While presented in the original widescreen, this is not, however, enhanced for widescreen televisions.

Tokyo Drifter (bridge)

The movie starts out with an odd, grainy black and white opening with only occasional splashes of color, and then goes into full color with the opening credits and overhead shots of Tokyo. Color is very important throughout, and is used to set the mood of the scene. Most of the time only simple combinations of colors are chosen. Except for that, I’d compare it to “The Wizard of Oz”, with its opening black & white Kansas scene going into brilliant color for Oz. “Tokyo Drifter,” on the other hand, starts with grainy black and white to set the pace of a standard mafia movie, and then moves into normal color for Tokyo (I get the feeling, however, that the overhead shots of Tokyo may have been stock footage), and then into muted, pastel colors for the rest of the film, with some notable exceptions. (One of the better such scenes is the Old West brawl in the Old West bar!)

The soundtrack is a nice little American-style jazz track, liked you’d find in any of the better hard-boiled detective shows in the United States of the time, with a faint touch of what sounds to my untrained ear like Japanese drumming. There is also, of course, some singing from sultry Chiharu.

The only extra is an interesting twenty-minute interview with the director, although I’m not sure about the translations. I don’t speak Japanese, but Suzuki spoke for long periods of time with the same one-line translation on the bottom of the screen.

Overall a very interesting cinematic experience. I recommend it, especially if you’re interested in either gangster or Japanese film, or if you’re a student of film in general. But I really recommend it in any case: it’s just a good, fun movie.

Recommendation: Rent

DirectorSeijun Suzuki
WriterYasunori Kawauchi
ActorTetsuya Watari
Spoken languageJapanese
Special FeatureInterviews
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If you enjoyed Tokyo Drifter…

For more about hard-boiled, you might also be interested in Casablanca, Shaft, The Night Stalker, The Seven Samurai, The Usual Suspects, Bordersnakes, and The Blowtop.

For more about Japanese, you might also be interested in Tampopo, The Seven Samurai, and Japanese Country Cookbook.