by Sarah Nichols

I am sitting here listening to the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s homage to musicals, New York, New York (1977), and I am trying to recall any moment from the film that lodged itself in my brain because the music and the image meshed so perfectly that I would want to return to it.  I can’t; nothing is there. Even the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” seems out of joint.

“Where is he,/that vagabond,/always drifting,/always alone/… The drifter from Tokyo…” Flashback eleven years earlier, and Tetsuya Watari, the Drifter, Tetsu, sings the theme song himself (1). For me, it’s a piece of found poetry, its lines forming an epic of universal Film Noir themes: “And I’m a drifter who walks alone/I know not where my grave will be…”  It meanders through Suzuki’s pop yakuza labyrinth in a kind of mournful counterpoint. There are the hot, teeming colors of 60s Tokyo, as seen on a stage set: egg-yolk yellows, royal purple, reds from across the spectrum. Pulsing greens. And then there’s Tetsu, frequently kitted out in a powder- blue suit,  a “…cool and calming color” (2), but not for him. It’s more the cool that burns, and he’s forever reminding himself (and everyone around him) that he’s legit now. The color doesn’t suit him, and, all too obviously, it’s ill-fitting. He still has the damn thing on even after he’s been pushed down a building shaft and left for dead by a rival gang member.

And therein lies some of the problem (no, not that Tetsu probably can’t afford a new suit) but that he is a kind of anachronism: he doesn’t belong in 1966.  He doesn’t belong anywhere, exactly: he croons “I’ll let love pass me by/just to remain loyal/…the drifter from Tokyo/the wind blows on its own/the moon shines all by itself…”  and again it sounds like a compendium of American Noir themes from the classical era.  If I was to imagine a backstory for Tetsu, I see something like Jean-Paul Belmondo in A Bout de Souffle, except Tetsu is harder.

Belmondo’s Michel always struck me as just playing at being a criminal: he absorbed Bogart and Cagney and assorted B movies and wondered how it would work in the real world. It didn’t, of course, except the part about betrayal. Tetsu is also betrayed. Not by a woman, as so often happens in noir, but by his boss, Kurata, to whom he has remained loyal, even after both decided to go straight.

By the end of the film, Tetsu is almost completely isolated, and he’s wearing a white suit almost glaring in its brightness. It’s hipper. Sleeker. Tetsu’s girlfriend, Chiaru (a nightclub singer that he has sometimes sung his theme with), is also dressed in white. Isn’t it perfect ? No; of course it isn’t. Tetsu tells her that “a drifter doesn’t need a woman…I can’t walk with a woman at my side.”

I can hear a man in a 40s noir saying that; it could be anyone, and he would mean it, up to a point. It could be a threat, or an invitation. Tetsu is simply stating  his life as it’s going to be lived, and he walks out into the night. He’s a cold bastard, and I haven’t liked him for a moment in the entire film. But then he starts singing again: “When a flower gives up its dream/ the flower withers and the dream dies…”.


  1. Jaime S. Rich, “Tokyo Drifter (Blu-ray) #39” Blog post, 30 December 2011, www. 25 August 2012
  2. Rich, “Tokyo Drifter (Blu-ray) #39” Blog post, 30 December 2011, 25 August 2012