Seijun Suzuki,born in 1923, made some 40 films as a contract director for Nikkatsu Studios between 1956 and 1967, none of which appear to have been released in the U.S. outside of Japanese-language theaters.
At some point after his first 20 or 25 films, Suzuki apparently grew bored with the bad scripts and stylistic restrictions his bosses saddled him with; so, around 1963, he started goosing up the stories with moments of extreme stylization, much to the studio's dismay. “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) was one of the resulting works; a few films later, after the totally nuts “Branded to Kill” (1967), he was fired.
He's gotten to make fewer than a dozen films in the 45 years since; the last, “Pistol Opera,” was a decade ago. Still, in the late '90s, he was “discovered” on the festival circuit, leading to video releases and theatrical bookings (including a major retrospective at the Nuart in 1997).
Like most of his Nikkatsu movies, the plot of “Tokyo Drifter” is standard yakuza fare, but filled with flashy devices. Its pop-art, swingin' ‘60sset design, staging and editing owe more to Richard Lester and the James Bond series than to other Japanese directors of the era.
Criterion put out a laserdisc in 1997, which, as a bonus, included 20 minutes of Suzuki interview footage, shot at the Nuart; the same content, which was not so great visually, was ported over to DVD a few years later. Now, thanks to a recent high-definition digital restoration, the company is issuing new Blu-ray and DVD editions that look much better, capturing the film in all its garish glory. The same interview footage is included, but is supplemented by 12 minutes of amusing reminiscences from the 88-year-old Suzuki and his assistant director, Masami Kuzuu, shot in 2011.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).