By Michael McNulty
Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill was produced by Nikkatsu Studios, one of Japan’s major production companies who specialized in making programme pictures of the urban youth and Mukokuseki Akushon (borderless action) variety. The film exists in a cultural and cinematic middle ground, distinctly Japanese, but dressed in a noir-gangster film jacket that could have been stitched together by the French New Wave. It is a warped, exhilarating genre piece and a seminal work.
Nikkatsu’s extremely busy production slate (they churned out approximately 100 films a year) relied on cheap features designed to maximize profits and appeal to the youth market. It’s no surprise then that Suzuki’s feverishly insane Branded to Kill was met with disdain by then Nikkatsu president, Kyusaku Hori. In fact, Branded to Kill was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Its fragmented narrative and highly stylized aesthetic rubbed Hori so much the wrong way that he withdrew it as soon as its theatrical run was finished and gave Suzuki the sack. As a result, Suzuki was blackballed from all the major studios and didn’t make another feature for ten years. In short, the film shook things up.
Branded to Kill follows Hanada (Jô Shishido), a hit man ranked Number 3, with a fetish for the smell of boiling rice and the ambition to become Number 1. However, the film concerns itself little with plot, and unfolds more like a delirious dream, with Suzuki dispensing with conventional narrative progression and editing. The result is a story that’s difficult to decipher upon first viewing. But, this doesn’t detract from the sheer enjoyment and entertainment the film imparts. A mish-mash of the surreal and the absurd, it is a stylistic thrill ride from start to finish, racing along at breakneck speed with scenes abruptly interrupting each other.
The film is an exercise in excess, bursting at the seams with pop art aesthetics and recalls the works of Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Goddard, through the use of surrealist imagery and jump cuts. Hanada’s apartment is a 60’s bachelor pad, dripping in minimalist cool where time ceases to exist as he chases his seemingly always naked wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), around and they have torrid, gymnastic sex everywhere, but the bed. In another apartment the walls are decorated with dead, pinned up butterflies, that are never commented on and beg the question, are they a part of a hallucination?
Outside and on the job, axing marks at the behest of the Yakuza, Hanada is the professional that earned him his Number 3 ranking. In one sequence of events, we get to enjoy Hanada’s increasingly inventive assassinations. One of which involves him hiding behind a motorized billboard advertising a brand of cigarette lighters. Hanada makes use of a gap that is revealed when the top of the giant cardboard lighter is lifted, cracking off a shot and killing the mark standing on a far off train platform.
It is when Hanada is hired by Misako (Annu Mari) that things go south. Employed to put down a foreign investigator, Hanada bungles the job when a butterfly lands on his rifle’s scope and he misses his shot, killing an innocent bystander. Consequently, the mob put out a hit against him, sending out the mysterious and elusive Number 1 hit man (Kôji Nanbara) to do the job. From here what ensues is a sort of cat and mouse like game, culminating in a superbly crafted showdown held in a boxing ring, of all places.
Branded to Kill has it all, gun fights and violence, sex and longing, and a dark streak of comedy, all of it scored to jazz. The chiaroscuro monochrome photography is a pure delight, that’s beautifully composed and adds an extra layer of cool to the entire film. This is a guaranteed exhilarating viewing experience that will leave a long and lasting impression.