Does a man choose his song or does the song choose him? Is it better to die for the group or to take being asked to die as a sign it's time to go it alone? There is a sense of the inevitable hanging over 1966's Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者), a Seijun Suzuki yakuza film slightly more conventional than Branded to Kill but only slightly. Not many serious gangster films give their protagonists musical numbers or employ minimalist, blatantly artificial sets. Tokyo Drifter is a beautifully stylised film that revels in its archetypes even as it subverts its genre.
Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is a young yakuza soldier trying to be a former yakuza soldier at the beginning of the film because his outfit, headed by Kurata (Ryuji Kita), is trying to go legit. In the first scene, the only black and white scene in the film otherwise shot in brillliant, beautiful colour, Tetsu takes a beating from some toughs in a rival gang who don't believe he's gone straight.
The movie has a theme song, also called "Tokyo Drifter", which is played over the opening credits and then is sung in a nightclub by Tetsu's singer girlfriend, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara). After that, Tetsu can't get the song out of his head and routinely whistles or sings it throughout the film, including in one memorable scene where, being stalked by the rival gang's enforcer, Tatsu (Tamio Kawaji), Tetsu coolly watches a car being demolished.
Things go sour when the rival Otsuka group gets jealous of Kurata's legitimately owned property and they arrange a trap, forcing Kurata to take his group back to its old yakuza ways. As part of a deal for peace, Tetsu, being Kurata's best soldier, is forced to leave Tokyo, so he wanders throughout Japan as a drifter, fitting, given he's been singing about doing that for the whole movie.
Another inevitability is brought up when Keiichi (Tsuyoshi Yoshida), Otsuka's former top soldier, saves Tetsu from the Otsuka men who try to kill him anyway, despite the fact that he's left Tokyo as agreed. Keiichi tells Tetsu it's only a matter of time before Kurata tries to sacrifice him the way Otsuka betrayed Keiichi.
The broad thematic quality of the story is matched by a heavily stylish aesthetic. The colourful and minimalist nightclubs paired with the recurring musical numbers give the film a Hollywood musical quality. The characters themselves have a larger than life, comic book quality. Tetsu has a strange boyishness and is always in a pale, pristinely tailored suit. Otsuka is always in a bright red suit and his face, covered with enormous sunglasses, is mostly shown only in extreme closeups of parts of it, giving him the quality of an omniscient being.
The sense is that Tetsu is an earnest child lost in a world dominated by sinister, cynical forces.