I originally wrote this review of Tokyo Drifter, a low-budget, indie film-turned-musical that stole the hearts of Tokyoites everywhere, as part of a series for the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival.
There are three things you should know about Tetsuaki Matsue’s Tokyo Drifter, three things that I wish I had known before seeing the film. Three things that will probably alter the way you perceive this flick:
1. The entire movie was filmed in a 10-hour period and edited by a crew of fewer than 10 people. 2. There is no plot — in the traditional sense of the word — and there isn’t supposed to be one. 3. Kenta Maeno of Live Tape fame is the film’s one and only cast member.
Tokyo Drifter was created with a very specific audience in mind — and it’s not the same as the 1966 yakuza flick that is its namesake. While it’s possible that most people who watch this movie will understand it on some level, the lack of a definitive story and an absence of spoken dialogue may also force some to wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Admittedly, it’s not clear from the very beginning exactly what is going on: What begins as a seemingly random, aimless tribute, rapidly evolves — or perhaps devolves — into a passionate romance — or a one-sided affair — between a man and his hometown. When all is said and done, Tokyo Drifter is a love story, an intimate love story portrayed through music.
The film mainly consists of musician Kenta Maeno wandering the streets of Tokyo on May 27, 2011, guitar in hand, vocals at full blast. Over the next 72 minutes, viewers are taken on a tour of Tokyo by night, of Shibuya’s back alleys and the train tracks of Meidaimae, on the back of Maeno’s motorbike. Those familiar with Japan’s biggest metropolis, those who love music, those who have an appreciation for expressions of raw, unedited emotion — you are the people who this film was made for.
Matsue’s honest depiction of the post-quake, darkened Tokyo comes at a high price — he sacrifices equalizers and script alike, opting for grainy, noisy cuts, and a striking lack of transitions to present Tokyo in all its imperfect glory, a Tokyo as only Tokyoites know it.
That said, don’t be surprised if and when you find yourself lost, grasping for a plot that just isn’t there. Tokyo Drifter a good watch, but only if you see this for what it really is: An hour-long music video filmed two months after the East Japan earthquake to remind us all of one thing: life goes on.