Prior to reviewing this Criterion Blu-ray, I had never seen 'Tokyo Drifter,' but after watching it, I feel that I discovered Quentin Tarantino's main inspiration for the 'Kill Bill' films (more so for 'Vol. 1' than 'Vol. 2'). Much like The Bride in 'Kill Bill,' our central character in 'Tokyo Drifter' is a reformed killer named Tetsu who's in trouble for changing his killing ways. When his boss, Kurata, disbands the syndicate and tries steering his business in a straight, legally-abiding business, competing yakuza leader Otsuko sends his men to pick up the scraps and apply pressure to Kurata. In the process, Tetsu shows his loyalty for Kurata and Otsuko knows that they'll never be able to fully get to Kurata with him in the way. Not only do they constantly try getting at Tetsu, but they put his girlfriend and Kurata under pressure as well.
The key to getting at Kurata is entirely removing Tetsu from the equation. With Kurata's permission, Tetsu flees Tokyo and becomes a drifter, but no matter where he goes, Otsuko's men keep finding him. Even when Tetsu resides under the protection of outside-of-Tokyo yakuza leaders, he is never safe. A great moral dichotomy rises when he meets a fellow drifting assassin named Kenji. Under constant danger, Tetsu represents loyalty to his fatherly boss. A free and unwanted man, Kenji represents disloyalty, having left everything behind for his own safety. Is it the loyalty to a boss (or father) that places Tetsu in danger? Does safety require playing dirty and breaking bonds of trust? You'll have to see to find out. Just like this example, there are plenty of topics here worthy of film school dissection.
In many ways, the character dynamics are like those of 'Kill Bill.' I'll refrain from explaining them in depth to avoid spoilerific content. The other 'Tokyo Drifter'-isms included in 'Kill Bill' are a fight sequence taking place in a club where dancing socialites break it down to poppy Japanese music on a plexiglass floor, the use of black & white filming to express a different tone from the rest of the colorful film and fight sequences taking place in front of vibrant single-color walls and panels. There's even a villainous character named Tanaka like the one that O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) decapitates at a syndicate meeting in 'Vol. 1.'
I wasn't around in 1966, but 'Tokyo Drifter' sure feels like it was a film ahead of its time. I don't know that there's another film this old that I would classify as "bad-ass," but 'Tokyo Drifter' sure is. It's smart and unpredictable. Although the film is unrated, considering the amount of graphically violent content, it would certainly receive an R rating now. Tetsu shoots an assassin in the eye and we see as the man writhes in pain (not unlike Elle Driver [Daryl Hannah] in 'Vol. 2'). Scarred and partially blind, he later returns with revenge as his fuel. We even see a disgraced character slit his wrists over the embarrassing agony of being dishonorable, blood spurting everywhere. These are surprising images to see even now, so image how shocking they must have been 45 years ago.
I'll save the details for the "special features" section of this review, but tell you that the few included on the disc explain a lot of the interesting backstory to the film, its production, its release, its reception and the controversy that followed. Watching the film and then learning the facts behind it make 'Tokyo Drifter' a truly entertaining, informative and educational worthwhile experience. But, really – would you expect anything less from a Criterion release?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Our friends at Criterion have placed 'Tokyo Drifter' on a Region A BD-50 in a typical fatter-than-usual and clear single-disc keepcase. Included in the case is a 14-page booklet including artwork from the film, an essay by Howard Hampton titled 'Catch My Drift' and production and transfer notes. Upon inserting the disc into a Blu-ray player, absolutely nothing plays before the main menu – just as I like it.
'Tokyo Drifter' has been remastered and given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encode presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. While the video quality is not perfect, the reasons for the faults are obvious and arguably necessary (I'll explain why).
When the Criterion intro played after selecting "play" feature on the main menu, I became immediately worried by the amount of noise appearing in the black background of the vanity reel. Luckily, it's only during this Criterion intro that noise is present during the film. It's stated in the included booklet and clearly visible that throughout the film, DNR "was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction." The application of DNR is noticeable at times, but not a reoccurring attention-grabber.
The booklet also points out the the transfer was made from an original 35 mm low-contrast print, but aside from the black & white intro to the film, you'd never know it. The contrast of the new master is fantastic. The only remaining problematic characteristic from the print stems the lack of vibrancy in color. The should-be bright colors are slightly washed-out and muted, the fleshtones appearing slightly warmer than normal.
The picture quality is sharp, crisp and absolutely clean – the product of scrubbing, I'm sure – but details aren't as rich as they should be. The use of DNR has smoothed over some of the finer should-be visible details such as facial pores, leaving them waxy and unnaturally smooth-looking. But if this is what it takes to remove "thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitters, and flicker," then it's the less distracting price to pay for fatal problems.
'Tokyo Drifter' features only one listening option, a remastered uncompressed Japanese mono LPCM track. Be sure turn on those English subtitles.
The booklet once again explains how the clicks, thumps, hiss, hum and crackle were removed. All of those listed flaws are completely absent with the exception of slight vocal crackling. Occasionally, the voice track sounds a tad distorted, but not all the time.
Considering the remastered track retains the monaural quality, it's quite astonishing how dynamic the different tracks of audio sound coming from just one speaker. The music – at times sounding like something from 'Dragnet' and other times resembling the trumpet-driven tracks from the 'Kill Bill' soundtracks – rings out clear and apart from the dialog. There appears to be an overall lack of sound effects, but that certainly comes from the original master and by no fault of the transfer. We wouldn't want Criterion going all "George Lucas" on us and adding in things that weren't present in the original, would we? There are also several occasions where the voiced-over dubs reveal the actors not speaking the words that you're hearing. It doesn't take knowing the Japanese language to notice this rarely occurring dubbing problem.
'Tokyo Drifter' is a perfect example of film ahead of its time. Seeing it for the first time now will allow you to see how influential this film has been for the medium – especially for Quentin Tarantino. It's smart, intense, fun and violent. Unless you've seen the 'Kill Bill' films, its unique depiction of the action genre is unlike anything released before or 30-plus years after it. The picture quality has been cleaned up to near perfection, but traces of DNR are scattered throughout and the colors aren't as vibrant as they should be. The mono audio is also clean, but at time features slight distorted crackling over the vocal track. Although the special features included are few and short, they give the historical perspective of the film's significance, show why it's worthy of being part of the Criterion Collection and how great the newly remastered transfer is compared to the original footage.