Tokyo Drifter

Last updated
Tokyo Drifter
Tokyo Drifter poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Written by Yasunori Kawauchi
Produced byTetsuro Nakagawa
Starring Tetsuya Watari
Chieko Matsubara
Hideaki Nitani
CinematographyShigeyoshi Mine
Edited by Shinya Inoue
Music by Hajime Kaburagi
Release date
  • April 10, 1966 (1966-04-10)
Running time
83 minutes

Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Tōkyō nagaremono) is a 1966 yakuza film directed by Seijun Suzuki. The story follows the reformed yakuza hitman "Phoenix" Tetsu, played by Tetsuya Watari, who is forced to roam Japan while avoiding execution by rival gangs.



Tokyo-based yakuza boss Kurata decides to disband his criminal organization and become a legitimate businessman. However, his old rival, Otsuka, sees his retirement as an opportunity to seize his businesses. Otsuka tries to recruit Kurata’s right-hand man, Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo, into his organization but Tetsu rebuffs him out of loyalty to Kurata, earning Otsuka’s ire.

One of Otsuka’s men, Tanaka, gets a tip from his girlfriend, Mutsuko, that Kurata went into debt with her boss, Yoshii, to buy his primary business, Club Alulu. Otsuka visits Yoshii’s office and threatens him into selling Kurata’s debt to him so he can foreclose on it and take his properties. Though Yoshii initially resists, he eventually caves and signs the debt over. Tetsu learns of Otsuka’s intentions and goes to rescue Yoshii, but arrives after Otsuka has already killed the moneylender and is then taken captive. Otsuka goes to inform Kurata that he now owns his debt, prompting an argument which culminates with Otsuka’s men attacking Kurata, who draws his pistol and fires at them but accidentally hits and kills Mutsuko. Kurata tries to use this to blackmail Kurata into handing over even more properties, but Tetsu arrives after having escaped from Kurata’s trap and threatens to expose Otsuka’s murder of Yoshii if Otsuka doesn’t leave his boss alone. Deadlocked, Kurata and Otsuka make Yoshii and Mutsuko’s deaths look like a lover’s suicide and the matter is temporarily resolved.

Infuriated by Tetsu’s foiling of his plan, Otsuka orders his top hitman, Tatsuzo the Viper, to kill him. Tetsu manages to avoid an attempt on his life during a date with his girlfriend, Club Alulu singer Chiharu, and then resolves to leave Tokyo to protect Kurata and Chiharu.

Tetsu travels north and is taken in by Kurata’s allies, the Nanbu Group, who are embroiled in a turf war with the Otsuka-allied Hokubu Group. However, he is forced to flee soon after when a group of Hokubu thugs led by Tatsuzo and Tanaka attack the Nanbu Group’s base. Tetsu manages to escape his pursuers while inflicting severe injuries to them, leaving Tanaka with a missing eye and Tatsuzo with a crushed hand and burnt face.

Tetsu eventually meets up with Kenji “Shooting Star” Aizawa, a former Otsuka man who defected from the group. Despite their prior enmity, Kenji lets Tetsu stay in his home and helps tend to his wounds. When speaking about their respective exiles, Kenji warns Tetsu not to put too much trust in Kurata, since he believes all yakuza bosses care more about their wealth than their underlings, something which the ever-loyal Tetsu rejects.

After he recovers, Tetsu tries to avoid his pursuers by changing course and heading south. En route, he briefly runs into Chiharu, who’s been trying to find him, but he rejects her efforts to reunite and get him to come back home with her.

Arriving in Sasebo, Tetsu is taken in by Kenji’s new boss, the Kurata-aligned Umetani. While Tetsu speaks with Umetani at his western film-themed saloon, Tatsuzo arrives and starts a brawl to cover for another attempt on Tetsu’s life. However, Kenji protects Tetsu from Tatsuzo's assassination and, after Tetsu and Umetani drive out the rioting patrons, the three confront him. Cornered, Tatsuzo shoots himself to avoid being killed by his enemies.

Due to the humiliation Tetsu has inflicted on his organization, Otsuka offers to forgive Kurata’s debt and let him keep his businesses in exchange for aiding in killing Tetsu, to which Kurata agrees. Kurata orders Umetani to kill Tetsu for him, but he and Kenji refuse to obey the order and instead warn Tetsu, who decides to return to Tokyo. Tetsu confronts Kurata and Otsuka at Club Alulu, where they are hearing Chiharu perform, resulting in a shootout in which Otsuka and all of his men (including Tanaka) are killed. Ashamed of his betrayal, Kurata slits his own wrists to commit suicide in atonement. As Tetsu leaves, Chiharu offers to travel with him, but he rejects her pleas, explaining he has become a wanderer and cannot be accompanied by anyone. He then steps out of the club and walks off into the night. [1]



Nikkatsu bosses had been warning Suzuki to tone down his bizarre visual style for years and drastically reduced Tokyo Drifter's budget in hopes of getting results. This had the opposite effect in that Suzuki and art director Takeo Kimura pushed themselves to new heights of surrealism and absurdity. The studio's next move was to impose the further restriction of filming in black and white on his next two films, which again Suzuki met with even greater bizarreness culminating in his dismissal for "incomprehensibility". [2]

Because of budget limitations, Suzuki had to cut connecting shots out of many fights, leading to a need for more creative camera work. [3]

Various shots of Tokyo were used to establish the setting as the then-contemporary post-1964 Japan. [4] Suzuki drew inspiration from a wide variety of sources in making Tokyo Drifter, including the musical films of the 1950s, pop art, absurdist comedy, and surrealist film. [5]


Suzuki displays common themes found in yakuza films, particularly the theme of loyalty, in order to parody the message and presentation of traditional yakuza films. He uses his depictions of yakuza relationships to show the inherent weakness of the archetype, particularly the possible abuses of power that can arise from unquestioning allegiance. [4] Further, the common theme of corporate corruption is also parodied through exaggeration when the main character becomes an expendable retainer. [6] The conventions in the film further parody the conformity of theme and structure apparent in all Japanese film, but especially in yakuza films of the time, [5] particularly its excesses. [7]


The mise en scène of Tokyo Drifter is highly stylized. [8] Film reviewer Nikolaos Vryzidis claims that the film crosses over into a number of different genres, but most resembles the avant-garde films occurring in the 1960s. [5]

At times, the film draws a good deal of inspiration from westerns. The whistling of the main character Tetsu is reminiscent of cowboy heroes. Near the middle of the film, a large bar fight erupts; this scene is meant to directly parody western films, everyone in the saloon joins in the brawl against United States Navy sailors, and comical violence is used where no one is permanently injured, despite the large-scale violence of the scene. [9]

The majority of the film takes place in Tokyo, but portrays the city in a highly stylized manner. [10] The opening sequence consists of a mash of images from metropolitan Tokyo, meant to condense the feeling of the city into one sequence. [11]

The film opens in stylized black and white, which becomes vibrant color in all subsequent scenes. [9] This served to represent Tokyo post-1964 Summer Olympics. [11]


Vryzidis claims that Suzuki's later films, once the studio gave him more freedom, never reached the same level of artistic quality as Tokyo Drifter, where the studio attempted to impose a large amount of control over the project. [9] Tetsu, the main character of the film, has also been well received. One reviewer commented that he always looks "cool", even when he is not the toughest guy in the room. [7]

Stephen Barber called the visualization in Tokyo Drifter "bizarre and individual". [10] Douglass Pratt praised the film for its quirkiness and character. [3] He further stated that the plot of the film does not matter so much as "the gorgeous Pop Art sets, the bizarre musical sequences, the confusing but ballistic action scenes and the film's gunbutt attitude." [3]


The film is considered ahead of its time, as it abandoned the themes of the Ninkyo eiga films popular at the time, and combines with themes from the later Jitsuroku eiga yakuza films, which disavowed the romantic and nostalgic views of the yakuza in favor of social criticism. [6]

Home video

The Criterion Collection released the film outside Japan in DVD format in 1999. [12] Criterion also released a Blu-ray version in 2013.


The film has a recurrent appearance of Tetsu's girlfriend as a lounge singer repeating several times her signature song throughout the film.

Tokyo Drifter 2: The Sea is Bright Red as the Color of Love

Tokyo Drifter 2: The Sea is Bright Red as the Color of Love
Directed byKenjirō Morinaga
Screenplay byKeihan Ono, Daigo Mitsushiro
Music by Hajime Kaburagi
Distributed by Nikkatsu
Release date
  • November 9, 1966 (1966-11-09)(Japan)
Running time
73 minutes

Tokyo Drifter 2: The Sea is Bright Red as the Color of Love (続東京流れ者 海は真っ赤な恋の色, Zoku Tōkyō nagaremono Umiwa Makkana Koinoiro) is a 1966 Japanese crime film and sequel to Tokyo Drifter. [13] [14]



  1. Berra (2010), 282.
  2. Desjardins (2005), 136–149.
  3. 1 2 3 Pratt (2005), 1246.
  4. 1 2 Standish (2005), 300.
  5. 1 2 3 Vryzidis (2010), 282.
  6. 1 2 Standish (2005), 301.
  7. 1 2 Bleiler (2004), 632.
  8. Standish (2005), 304.
  9. 1 2 3 Vryzidis (2010), 283.
  10. 1 2 Barber (2005), 124.
  11. 1 2 Barber (2005), 125.
  12. "Tokyo Drifter". Online Cinematheque. New York City: The Criterion Collection. 2010. Retrieved 26 April 2010.
  13. "Zoku Tōkyō nagaremono Umiwa Makkana Koinoiro". Nikkatsu. Retrieved 12 October 2021.
  14. "続東京流れ者 海は真赤な恋の色". Kinema Junpo . Retrieved August 17, 2021.

Related Research Articles

<i>Branded to Kill</i> 1967 film by Seijun Suzuki

Branded to Kill is a 1967 Japanese yakuza film directed by Seijun Suzuki and starring Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari and Mariko Ogawa. The story follows contract killer Goro Hanada as he is recruited by a mysterious woman named Misako for a seemingly impossible mission. When the mission fails, he is hunted by the phantom Number One Killer, whose methods threaten his life and sanity.

<i>Into the Sun</i> (2005 film) 2005 film

Into the Sun is a 2005 action film directed by Christopher Morrison and starring Steven Seagal, Matthew Davis, Takao Osawa, Eddie George, Juliette Marquis, and William Atherton.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yakuza film</span> Film genre

Yakuza film is a popular film genre in Japanese cinema which focuses on the lives and dealings of yakuza, Japanese organized crime syndicates. In the silent film era, depictions of bakuto as sympathetic Robin Hood-like characters were common.

<i>Kanto Wanderer</i> 1963 Japanese film

Kanto Wanderer is a 1963 Japanese yakuza film directed by Seijun Suzuki and starring Akira Kobayashi, Chieko Matsubara, Daizaburo Hirata and Hiroko Itō. It was a programme picture produced by the Nikkatsu Company to fill out the second half of a double bill with Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman. The film was based on a novel by Taiko Hirabayashi and had been previously adapted to the screen as Song from the Underworld (1956) by Suzuki's mentor, Hiroshi Noguchi. The story involves Katsuta, a yakuza member who falls in love and is torn between giri (duty) and ninjo (humanity). The Kanto of the title refers to a large plain on which Tokyo is located.

<i>Tattooed Life</i> 1965 film by Seijun Suzuki

Tattooed Life is a 1965 yakuza action movie directed by Seijun Suzuki. The film stars Hideki Takahashi as "Silver Fox" Tetsu. The story follows the flight of yakuza hitman Tetsu and his younger, artistic brother Kenji after the latter kills a yakuza boss in a double cross. The pair is pursued by the yakuza and police as they head for Manchuria. They are swindled of their money before they can reach their destination and take labor jobs on a tunnel project, each falling in love with their new boss's sister-in-law and wife, respectively.

Reiko Oshida (大信田礼子) is a Japanese actress and singer.

<i>Graveyard of Honor</i> (1975 film) 1975 Japanese film

Graveyard of Honor is a 1975 Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Written by Tatsuhiko Kamoi, it adapts Fujita Goro's novel of the same name. It is based on the life of real-life yakuza member Rikio Ishikawa, who is played by Tetsuya Watari. Noboru Ando, who plays Ryunosuke Nozu, was actually a yakuza member before becoming an actor.

<i>Blues Harp</i> (film) 1998 Japanese film

Blues Harp is a 1998 Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike.

Isao Tamagawa was a Japanese actor. He appeared in the Japanese film Branded to Kill, as Michihiko Yabuhara: the yakuza boss that hires Hanada and seduces his wife. Upon the discovery that his diamond smuggling operation has been burgled, he employs Hanada to execute the guilty parties then adds him to the list when he flubs the job. His final appearance is with a bullet hole in his head.

<i>Key of Life</i> 2012 Japanese film

Key of Life is a 2012 Japanese comedy film directed by Kenji Uchida. The film opened in Japan on September 15, 2012. The movie's theme song "Tenbyō no Shikumi" (点描のしくみ) was written and performed by Kazuya Yoshii. The movie was remade in Korean in 2016 as Luck Key.

<i>Cops vs. Thugs</i> 1975 Japanese film

Cops vs. Thugs is a 1975 Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. It won two Blue Ribbon Awards in 1976: Best Director (Fukasaku) and Best Actor (Sugawara). Complex named it number 6 on their list of The 25 Best Yakuza Movies. Kino International released the film on DVD in North America in 2006.

<i>Outlaw: Gangster VIP</i> 1968 Japanese film

Outlaw: Gangster VIP is a 1968 Japanese crime film directed by Toshio Masuda. The film stars Tetsuya Watari who plays Goro, a gangster who was sent to prison for three years for stabbing a hitman who belonged to the rival gang called the Aokis. On his release from prison, Goro finds out his gang is in decline and learns that the hitman he stabbed is still alive.

<i>New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Bosss Head</i> 1975 Japanese film

New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head is a 1975 Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. The film details the internal conflicts between members of the Owada family on the Kyushu side of the Kanmon Straits. It is the unrelated sequel to New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1974) and was followed by the third and final unrelated film in the series, New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (1976).

<i>Cross the Rubicon!</i> 1975 Japanese film

Cross the Rubicon!, also known as Plundering the Source of Capital and Gambling Den Heist, is a 1975 Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tamio Kawachi</span> Japanese actor (1938–2018)

Tamio Kawachi was a Japanese actor.

<i>Enter the Fat Dragon</i> (2020 film) 2018 film directed by Wong Jing

Enter the Fat Dragon is a 2020 Hong Kong martial arts comedy film directed by Kenji Tanigaki and Aman Chang from a screenplay by and co-starring Wong Jing, who also acted producer with Connie Wong and lead actor Donnie Yen. The film co-stars Teresa Mo and Niki Chow. The film was announced as a remake of Sammo Hung's 1978 film of the same name, but is not.

Kantō Exile is a 1971 Japanese yakuza film directed by Keiichi Ozawa. The revenge story of a man living in the world of a yakuza who was betrayed by his uncle and his brother.

Hajime Kaburagi was a Japanese music composer. His another name was Tsukimi Satoichita. Kaburagi is best known as a composer of hit song Ginza no Koi no Monogatari which was sung by Yūjirō Ishihara and Junko Makimura.