Tetsuya "Phoenix Tetsu" Hondo is a young ex-Yakuza. He's an ex-Yakuza because his old boss, Kurata, went straight, dissolving the gang and buying a nightclub. Tetsu is wandering around Japan pursued by members of the rival gang Otsuka gang who, having failed to recruit Tetsu after Kurata retired, are not willing to let him run around loose on his own. But until they catch him he's the Tokyo Drifter, traveling Japan leaving a trail of bodies and betrayal in his wake.
One of the last Yakuza films maverick Japanese film director Seijun Suzuki made for Nikkatsu, Tokyo Drifter exhibits all of the features of Suzuki's iconoclastic style, which gleefully skewered classic yakuza genre tropes with dark humor, pop-art visuals and rule-of-cool sensibilities. Nikkatsu studios drastically reduced Tokyo Drifter's budget in a vain attempt rein Suzuki in but this only caused him get even more creative. Suzuki responded by stripping the story down to its bare essentials, eliminating connecting shots through clever camera work, and building the film around a series of long establishing shots of star Tetsuya Watari in a rather distinctive and modish light blue suit wandering around in the snow. Though not a big success when originally released (lending credence to Nikkatsu's charge that Suzuki's films "make no money and make no sense") it has since become a Cult Classic and Suzuki's absurdist and bare-bones style would become influential among a younger generation of directors, most notably Quentin Tarantino.
Tokyo Drifter contains examples of the following tropes:
- Antagonist in Mourning: Tetsu, Shooting Star, and Umetani are depressed after Tatsuzo kills himself at the end of their fight.Umetani: Even the death of a killer gets me down.
- Bar Brawl: Otsuka's men track Tetsu to a bar in Sasebo, starting an epic brawl when they attack. Just to drive home the joke, the bar in question is an American Wild West theme bar, complete with bat-wing doors.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: The bar brawl ends with Tatsuzo shooting himself in the head after Shooting Star gets the drop on him.
- The Cavalry: Just when it looks like Tetsu has finally been chased down by Otsuka's goons in a provincial town, he is rescued by "Shooting Star", a former Otsuka Mook who has gone rogue.
- Celibate Hero: Early in the film Tetsu rejects a thinly-veiled offer from Chiharu to come up to her place for sex. And at the end he declines to let her come with him on his life as a drifter, saying he's gotten used to being alone.Tetsu: I can't walk with a woman at my side.
- The Chanteuse: Sexy Chiharu is the singer at Kurata's nightclub. Otsuka wants her for himself.
- Color Motif: Red, the color of violence, is associated with Otsuka. He wears a red suit and there's usually some red item prominently shown in every scene where he appears.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The opening scene, in which Tetsu refuses an invitation to join Otsuka's gang and then gets beat up, is shot in stark black and white. The rest of the film is in color.
- The Drifter: He's from Tokyo, no less.
- Hero's Journey: Tetsu will eventually go home to settle accounts.
- High-Pressure Blood: Note the impressive fountain of blood at the end when Kurata slices his wrist with a shard of glass.
- Honor Before Reason: A common Yakuza film trope that Suzuki loved deconstructing. Tetsuya is fiercely loyal to Kurata, believing "we're like father and son", but Kurata, the chief of Tetsuya's old gang, sells him out without hesitation as soon as it's convenient. The characters talk big about honor but rarely miss a chance to be mean, petty, sneaky, or selfish. They aren't particularly big on reasoning, either.Otsuka: Money and power rule now! Honor means nothing!
- In the Back: Otsuka's evilness is underlined by how he pretends to buy the nightclub's mortgage from Yoshii, then shoots him In the Back as Yoshii is leaving the office.
- Ironic Juxtaposition: A shot shows a dog lying down on the docks of Tokyo harbor, then getting up and trotting away; this is immediately followed by a shot of Tetsu woozily rising to his feet after getting beat up by Otsuka's goons.
- Man in White: In the final scene Tetsu wears an off-white suit, a white shirt, and a white tie, symbolizing his purity and honor, while all the other men wear black suits, symbolizing their corruption. Of course, since the message of the film is that it's bad to put Honor Before Reason, this is not necessarily a good thing.
- Never Bring A Knife To A Gunfight: Two rival gangs in a provincial town are fighting with swords, and it all looks totally badass—until Tatsuzo the Otsuka man strides forward with a pistol and starts plugging dudes. The battle ends shortly thereafter.Tatsuzo: Stupid peasants!
- Not with the Safety on, You Won't: "Shooting Star" notes that the mook who is pointing a gun at him forgot to take the safety off, then snatches the gun out of his hands.
- Panty Shot: This Fanservice trope generally associated with Japanese anime is seen here during the Bar Brawl, when there's a shot of a woman hanging above the camera from the edge of a collapses balcony, legs spread, 1800s-style underwear prominently shown. The scene cuts to a Dirty Old Man below her, giggling.
- Race Fetish: Subtext in the scene where a white woman is performing as a stripper in a bar. And then direct text when, in the middle of the chaotic brawl, the stripper comes on to Tetsu.Stripper: (in Japanese) Much better than the French, English, and American guys I see. (kisses Tetsu)
- Rule of Cool: Pretty much Suzuki's stock in trade.
- Sexy Secretary: Yoshii's secretary Mutsuko, who is shown in one scene artfully applying lipstick. She's also the girlfriend of one of Otsuka's men, and she betrays her boss to Otsuka.
- Splash of Color: The opening scene where Otsuka's goons beat up Tetsu in black and white, except for a very brief Imagine Spot in which Otsuka is imagining Tetsu as a badass in his gang. That's in color.
- Title Drop: Chiharu sings a song about a "Tokyo drifter."
- Travel Montage: A series of static shots of various cities with wipes as transitions, and a screen chyron that says "drifting...drifting", illustrate Tetsu's wandering before he winds up in Sasebo at a Wild West-themed bar.
- Walking the Earth: Tetsu chooses this fate at the end, continuing the life of a drifter even when he doesn't have to.
- Yakuza: Both the characters and the genre.
- You Can Leave Your Hat On: The Wild West bar Tetsu visits in Sasebo has a lady doing a striptease routine.