Last night, I was doing my occasional browsing through YouTube when I saw the above video which had the still of this "don't-fool-around-with-me" lady striking an intimidating pose. Well, I should have known that this was singer-actress Meiko Kaji（梶芽衣子）. She was playing all sorts of deadly rebels and perhaps she is most famous in the West as the singer behind the song that was playing immediately after Uma "The Bride" Thurman scalped her enemy, Lucy Liu as O-Ren Ishii, in "Kill Bill: Volume 1".
Well, the song that she sings here is called "Tokyo Nagaremono" and as soon as I heard the quiet guitar and harmonica and her voice, I knew that the second word in the title had to mean "drifter", and sure enough, the English translation is "Tokyo Drifter". What better way to describe the characters that Kaji has played...that of a lone wolf bumping into trouble or trouble bumping into her and then taking care of it?
"Tokyo Nagaremono" then took me on a short journey which led me to the actual yakuza movie of the same name for which it became the theme song. I've only seen the first few scenes of the 1966 movie and read the Wikipedia description of it and was impressed by the story behind it. The director, Seijun Suzuki（鈴木清順）, was apparently quite the firebrand at his craft and his bosses over at Nikkatsu tried to tone him down (or take him down a few pegs) by slashing the budget for his next film. I'm sure the big guys had initially crossed their arms in glee at the thought of their uncontrollable director finally being made to heel...only for Suzuki and his staff to be inspired as they "....pushed themselves to new heights of surrealism and absurdity."
I caught a few more scenes here and there and there's quite a bit of day-glo colourful psychedelia and even some fast motion almost along the lines of a silent movie but I've got a feeling that my eyes haven't gotten quite the full experience of Suzuki's tour de force film. As for me, I'm not a yakuza film fan at all. However, considering the tidbits I've seen, I would be willing to take a longer look at "Tokyo Nagaremono", the story of a young hitman who has just been laid off, only to get himself involved in some nasty give n' take between two gangs. Who knows? This could have been one of the movies that inspired Quentin Tarentino to make "Kill Bill" in the first place.
Now, to the theme song itself which was actually released in 1965. The star of the movie, Tetsuya Watari（渡哲也）who plays that young assassin sings "Tokyo Nagaremono" in its full Mood Kayo (with a bit of Hawaiian) glory. And yep, it's that same Watari who would play Yujiro Ishihara's（石原裕次郎）right-hand man in those cop shows many years later. He looked quite a bit burlier back in his early days.
The intriguing thing is that the composer of the song is unknown. Maybe he got rubbed out? And as for the lyrics, they seem to have shifted. Watari sang the song for two different recording studios, Teichiku and Crown Records, each with a different lyricist, Kotoba Takatsuki（高月ことば）for the former and Kohan Kawauchi（川内康範）for the latter company under the pseudonym Kazuko Kawauchi（川内和子）. No matter what the words were, though, Watari's forlorn if somewhat defiant delivery pretty much spoke for his character, Phoenix Tetsu.
That same year, another version of "Tokyo Nagaremono" was released by Osaka-born singer Hiroko Takekoshi（竹越ひろ子）. Once again, the lyrics were done by yet another writer, Hiroshi Nagai（永井ひろし）. With a similarly Hawaiian Mood Kayo arrangement (that steel guitar seems to take a louder role in this take), Takekoshi sounds as if she were the unlucky lady that got dumped by Phoenix.
Takekoshi was born in 1941 and after graduating from Kishinosato Music Academy in 1959, she started performing as a jazz singer in nightclubs and US military camps before making her recorded debut in 1963 with King Records. With her version of "Tokyo Nagaremono" though, she sold 300,000 records in about 6 months which perhaps made it her biggest hit.
Of course, I cannot finish this article without including Keiko Fuji's（藤圭子）take on the song since she was indeed the Queen of Down-and-Out Kayo. It sounds as if the steel guitar has been replaced with an organ and saxophone, though. Her cover was apparently recorded in 1970 and once more, a different lyricist, Masao Ishizaka（石坂まさを）, put his own stamp on it. I'm kinda wondering if there was an unwritten rule that "Tokyo Nagaremono" could be re-written anytime.