Tokyo Drifter (1966) Is Phoenix Tetsu The Coolest Gangster?

Tokyo Drifter (1966) blu-ray release critrion edition movie cover poster

Revisited one of my favourite gangster movies of all time yesterday, the beautiful stylish, surreal and avant garde 60’s masterpiece from director Seijun Suzuki. A bewitching serene different approach to the tried and tested Yakuza formula. From the editing, to the skillfully thought out creative photography used on the set pieces, your eyes are always in for a dazzling treat. Everything is oozing ultra cool style but then you get the understated, too damn cool for school, Tetsuya ‘Phoenix Tetsu’ Hondo.

Is Tetsu one of the coolest hitmen to walk the planet? Hot on his heels is a certain Frenchman, Le Samouraï

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Tetsuya 'Phoenix Tetsu' Hondo beaten up train tracksTokyo Drifter (1966) Tetsuya 'Phoenix Tetsu' Hondo Kurata (Ryuji Kita)

Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is a young Yakuza hitman who now wishes to lay down his gun and violent ways to travel the world as a drifter. After his organization had disbanded, Tetsu still keeps fiercely loyal to his old boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita) who he sees as a father figure. Now that their gangster ways have been put aside they look forward to friendship together in retirement. Unfortunately for them there’s one gangster, Otsuka ( Eimei Esumi), who sees an opportunity to be had, with obtaining Kurata’s building estate for himself by any means necessary. With Phoenix Tetsu still hanging around though he knows he has to eliminate him.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Otsuka ( Eimei Esumi) gangstersTokyo Drifter (1966) Viper Tatsuzo (Tamio Kawaji) assassin

Step forward Otsuka’s hitman Viper Tatsuzo (Tamio Kawaji) a ruthless skilled assassin eager to take down the fabled Tetsu. If only he can be taken out of the picture then Otsuka’s plan to scam Kurata out of his estate will become so much easier. With all the killing and fighting surrounding Kurata, he asks Tetsu to leave and become the drifter he wants to be. Under duress he agrees to leave to meet up with an ally gang called Umetani in the snowy outskirts of Tokyo. Viper Tatsuzo, the ever professional, recruits his gang of thugs to help chase down Tetsu on route, desperate to get his man by any means necessary.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Kenji Shooting Star Aizawa (Hideaki Nitani)Tokyo Drifter (1966) Tetsuya 'Phoenix Tetsu' Hondo with

Would you believe me if I said that there’s one man cooler than our Tetsu? an older, wiser professional hitman also on a drifter pilgrimage. A green coat wearing man going under the name Kenji “Shooting Star” Aizawa (Hideaki Nitani). Surely this young hitman wanting the quiet life is doomed. How will he be able to escape all the bad guys coming at him? And will he ever stop singing and whistling? Oh shit did I forget to say he sings and whistle too, hehe don’t worry he’s still damn cool.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Tetsu and Chiharu shooting gameTokyo Drifter (1966) gangsters sitting

Why is it so cool? I’m sure you can see from the images, the use of colour, the suits, the framing of shots. The beginning opening sequence is filmed in high contrast black and white, then bursts into colour. The editing features quick cuts and a few superb little chapter titles and shots of Tokyo as location place holders. Plus with three cool calm and collected hitmen called Phoenix, Viper and Shooting Star hey it don’t come much cooler than that. But stop! there’s more, the opening gangster walk through scene is pure Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs inspiration maybe gangstersTokyo Drifter (1966) Phoenix Tetsu viper shooting star

I’ve read Seijun Suzuki film Branded to Kill he made the following year is as good, some say better, I can’t imagine how but it’s gonna be mighty fun to find out. I will be watching it very soon. Have you seen Tokyo Drifter? Let me know if you wish. If not I thoroughly recommend tracking it down.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Tetsuya 'Phoenix Tetsu' Hondo archway tunnel walkTokyo Drifter (1966) club singer Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara)

Sing us out Tetsu’s club singing lady friend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara)

Where is he, the vagabond?
Always drifting, always solo
Where will he be tomorrow?
The wind, his girl may know
The Drifter, from Tokyo
Drifting, drifting on and on
Till memories of Tokyo are gone

Tokyo Drifter (1966) tokyo at night looks like ridley scotts blade runner

60’s Tokyo at night looks like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner?

7 thoughts on “Tokyo Drifter (1966) Is Phoenix Tetsu The Coolest Gangster?

  1. The photography looks gorgeous, it is actually hard to believe this film was shot in 1966. I don’t know if it actually influenced Tarantino, but I wouldn’t wonder if it really did. Very curious about it now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That bottom walk on scene looks very much like the famous Reservoir Dogs scene. But Tokyo Drifter inspired him more in Kill Bill with the B&W opening scene then turning to colour. Plus the glass dance floor and a whistling Darryl Hannah. Lady Snowblood was one of the biggest influences on KIll Bill though. Tokyo Drifter is well cool and is like a pop art Yakuza movie. It’s quirky and very different. One of my favs 🙂


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