Tokyo Drifter Scene Analysis

This is fun! For a film class, I analyzed mise-en-scène, editing, cinematography, and sound within a two minute sequence in Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 Tokyo Drifter. 

You can watch it here:



The film Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966) follows the story of an ex-Yakuza gangster, Tetsu, and his skirmishes with different gang members. The colorful film seems to mock typical American westerns, while still maintaining its own unique, action-heavy style.  The most significant sequence in the film occurs from 21:09- 23:19, where the main conflict of the plot surfaces and the hero becomes trapped with the antagonist. Analyzing aspects of mise-en-scène and cinematography, as well as sound, within these two minutes prove that this sequence is the most iconic and definitive for the film as a whole.

Right before the sequence takes place, we are introduced to a setting of the club office.  Here Otsuka, the antagonist rival gang leader, forces Yoshii to give up the contract to an estate that Otsuka is attempting to buy. The hard lighting in the scene paired with a medium long shot from a wide angle lens position Yoshii in a position of stress, where he is sweating in the foreground and Otsuka’s henchmen appear looming over him. This clever shot shows all three men at equal sizes, while in reality the henchmen are behind Yoshii, implying that they are more powerful and willing to step in at any moment if things go wrong. The shot shows the viewer that Yoshii is trapped.  After some dialogue, Otsuka instructs Tanaka, a henchman, to call Kurata, the man with whom Yoshii previously agreed to settle the deal. The camera pans from left to right, behind Otsuka, following Tanaka to the phone. The camera halts with Otsuka’s right shoulder in the frame, revealing his power over Tanaka, in a medium long shot of Tanaka on the phone. He picks it up and the iconic sequence then begins.

A phone is heard ringing with a still shot of the familiar office of Kurata. The implied sound bridge between Tanaka picking up the phone and the ringing show the audience where the call is being placed. The specific floral wallpaper makes the viewer recognize this space immediately, a part of mise-en-scene. From a long shot, Mutsuko, the receptionist, is reading and giggling. She takes her time getting up to walk over to the phone—it has already rung four times. From a low point, the camera follows Mutsuko get up and head to the phone. In the back, however, Tetsu crosses from left to right and answers the phone. Unconcerned, Mutsuko returns to her place in the chair, where the camera repeats the same motion that followed her. The club music that has been playing since Yoshii went to the office minutes ago is still heard through a muffled filter over the phone. When Mutsuko sits, the camera cuts to a close up of Tanaka on the phone. There’s a single lamp behind him, but frontal light accenting his blank expression. He leans left with a dark background and a bright red phone.  A direct cut to Tetsu in a mirrored position with similar light, but a lighter background holding a white phone and wearing blue suit implies an inversion of power. The black and red combination against blue and white underlie a subtle bad versus good narrative. These two distinct shots switch back and forth throughout Tanaka-dominated dialogue, until he hangs up.

Silently, Kurata walks in a medium long shot from right to left, as the camera pans to follow. As he crosses to Tetsu hanging up the phone, we see the opposite perspective of the office from the previous Mutsuko shot. We see her in the chair facing the opposite direction. The viewer realizes this is the same path Tetsu walked earlier to answer the phone. In this quick cross, the lighting comes from the main room, spilling onto Tetsu and Kurata in an ambient yet natural way. A quick close up on Kurata, central with full light and eye match with the camera, the viewer can see his authentic acting as worried and concerned. As the camera remains still, returning to the previous shot, we see Tetsu walk out of the phone room to the door besides Mutsuko. Once there, the camera follows quickly going behind Kurata and establishing a high angle shot from below of Tetsu. He turns around to look at Kurata and Mutsuko. The receptionist is in medium shot focus while Kurata is out of focus in the phone room behind her. Then, another long shot shows Tetsu leaning up against the door and lighting a cigarette while Mutsuko is on the right in her chair facing out of frame. The sequence of these five shots demonstrates the Kuleshov Effect, where the audience is familiarized with the setting without getting an establishing shot. Tetsu asks Mutsuko the name of the club, and there is a direct cut to people dancing.

A bright purple background in an extreme long shot shows about ten people at the club. The same music that was playing in the office and over the phone blares in the club as the oblivious partiers drink their cares away. The music becomes mute as the known shot of Yoshii surrounded by the henchmen begins dialogue. Otsuka forces Yoshii to break the contract with Kurata and seal the new contract. Yoshii is frightened, but seals the contract and pockets the eight million on the table.  As he gets up to leave, the same pan that followed Tanaka to the phone follows Yoshii to the door in the same manner. Stopping to keep Otsuka in the frame, the wide angle lens again shows Yoshii central, a doorman in the background, and Otsuka’s arm, now with a gun, in the front left of the shot. Otsuka fires, and immediately cuts to Tetsu running toward the camera outside. Shot with a telephoto lens, Tetsu runs and looks for the sign of the club among others, but fails to gain any distance toward the camera. This accentuates the journey, and pace that Tetsu has gone to find Yoshii. Once Tetsu identifies the bar, we see him open a door and enter on the left.

As Tetsu enters the bar, we see him run up the stairs in the familiar purple lit bar from right to left in a medium long shot. The camera pans to follow his journey, rising with him as he ascends the staircase. The color contrast between the purple lit bar and Tetsu’s blue suit give an interesting shot—Tetsu is highlighted so all focus is drawn to him. Tetsu arrives at a door, which appears to almost be floating as it is the only dark color on screen. When Tetsu opens the door at the top of the stairs, Yoshii’s body falls onto him. The doorman peaks his head out, and then cuts to his perspective, seeing the familiar office and the door leading to the purple bar below. From a long shot, we see Tetsu standing in the doorway. Seeing Otsuka who just fired, the camera follows Tetsu’s dive to duck on the stairs from more shots in the office. Another cut to Otsuka in a medium long shot shows Tanaka stand up behind Otsuka and begin to shoot at the camera. The shooting takes place almost five seconds after Tetsu ducks. This may come across as a continuity error in editing, but this delay in action prolongs the suspense of the scene. Similarly, placing the camera between the fight, gives a head on perspective as both the attacker and the victim, providing the viewer more face-to-face action while watching the fight.

After the shooting, Otsuka and Tanaka join another henchmen and enter an elevator. The camera remains still, and we see Tetsu enter on the right and run toward the elevator situated on the far left of the screen. Tetsu attempts to open it, and after some struggle bursts the open.  We see Otsuka surrounded by his men as Tetsu falls into a trap  right in front of them. The light from the pit where Tetsu has fallen gives low lighting on the bottom of the faces of the three bad guys. The thud of the fall stops the music and cuts the shot direct overhead Tetsu on the floor in his blue suit. On the right side of the shot, the three men stand over him, while the light pours in from the open door on the left. A trap door falls over half of Tetsu, cutting off his legs, and Otsuka crosses over him and exits through the door. The other men follow, the door closes cutting off most of the light, and the second half of the door covers the rest of Tetsu, leaving the screen black to fade into a new scene.

This sequence is loaded with cinematographic details and mise-en-scène attributes that fuel the movie’s central theme. The mise-en-scène aspects of vivid color, like the phones, the background of the bar and Kurata’s office, and Tetsu’s suit fuel the central narrative of good versus evil and familiarize the viewer with the setting. The cinematography with wide angle shots position rivals against each other and suggest power within the office scenes with Yoshii with Otsuka and Kurata with Tetsu. Camera shots also familiarize the viewers with spatial recognition, such as Kurata’s office and the location of the bar. Similarly, placing the camera between the action or framing Otsuka’s gun in the corner of the shot add the suspense of the film. The narrative that occurs in these two minutes sets up the story for the plot to follow, motivating Tetsu to drift away and avoid gang related things, such as helping Kurata or trying to avenge Yoshii. The fast-paced editing between the two main locations of the bar and Kurata’s office heighten the conflict between the two factions and add to the central driving force of the movie. Tokyo Drifter is a staple in film for its unique color and high concentration of action. This sequence shows exactly that.




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