Director: Suzuki Seijun
By Roderick Heath
Seijun Suzuki, now 86 and still making films, helmed a mind-numbing 39 movies between 1956 and 1967 as a stable director of Nikkatsu Studios. During that stint, the independent-minded director became fed up with formula films and began expanding, perverting, and subverting the gangland drama, a personal crusade that reached its apogee in Branded to Kill. That film drifted so far away from the script and the requirements of the studio, Suzuki was sacked and could not get work outside of television for a decade afterwards.
Branded to Kill is utterly original and utterly strange – and as we all know, there’s no strange quite like Japanese strange. Suzuki’s film is a crossbreed of genre yarn with Kafka, Orson Welles, Euro-art cinema, and the Japanese underground aesthetic. The arty existential assassin flick has been done to death over the past half-century, with entries from Jean-Pierre Melville and John Boorman to Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch. Branded to Kill is particularly reminiscent of Boorman’s own 1967 picture Point Blank, but it’s more ferocious, more stylish, more sexy, more insane, more…more, than any rivals. Other aspects recall the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, also from 1967. Branded to Kill is, amongst other things, a perfect exemplar of 1960s Japanese cool, with omnipresent stovepipe suits, dark sunglasses, crisp black-and-white in a widest-of-wide frame, a blearily expressionist jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, and the sheer never-in-Hollywood boldness of it. It’s a blinding genre trash job that drags the gangster film into a surreal and cruel netherworld punctuated by startling sexuality and violence, as well as presenting a no-holds-barred savaging of the corporate-ladder existence at the high point of its near-religious grip on postwar Japanese society, leaving even Kurosawa’s cynical The Bad Sleep Well (1961) in its wake.
Penetrating Suzuki’s plot is initially a tall order, as the film’s visual narrative is sliced into cubist hunks. A shadowy organisation of assassins ranks its members according to prowess. The current No. 3, Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido), arrives back in Tokyo with his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and is driven from the airport by Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), another assassin who’s slipped far down the totem pole and is trying to get back in the game. He invites Hanada in on a job he’s been given by crime boss Yabuhara (Isao Tanagawa) to pick up a man who’s sneaking into the country and shuttle him to Nagano. On the way, they’re tracked by other top assassins hired to keep Hanada and Kasuga from getting their charge to his destination. In a battle within the grounds of a deserted building, Kasuga’s drunkenness sees him make a fool of himself, much to Hanada’s disgust, so Kasuga hysterically charges at No. 4, Koh, and the two men kill each other. Hanada then has to fight through another ambush on his own, this time taking out the No. 2 man before finally, and in underwhelming anticlimax, dropping his man at his rendezvous in a motel car park.
Returning to Tokyo, Hanada’s car breaks down, and he gets a lift with a young woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who claims to hate men. Holing up in his bleakly modern apartment, Hanada indulges in bestial relations with Mami and his own fetish for the smell of cooking rice, but continues to think about Misako. He’s hired by Yabuhara to kill several more men, and then Misako asks him to kill a western agent (Franz Gruber). But a butterfly landing in front of his rifle scope causes him to miss and kill an innocent woman instead, a foul-up that will spell his doom in the assassin’s ranks. But it’s at home that Hanada is shot by an apparently jealous Mami and left to die in their burning apartment. But he’s not fatally wounded, and he stumbles bleeding to Misako’s place.
He and Misako ensnare each other in erotically charged but aggressive, inchoate trysts. When he has recovered from his wounds, Hanada locates Mami at Yabuhara’s place. She’s been having an affair with Yabuhara and was ordered to kill her husband. Mami spills the beans before Hanada shoots her: both the assassinations Yabuhara had him commit and the one Misako hired him for are linked in an effort to stem the damage that’s been done to a diamond smuggling scheme by rogue operators. Yabuhara is shot by another killer before Hanada can take care of him, and Misako is snatched; a film left playing on a projector in the apartment shows footage of Misako being tortured for not killing Hanada. A voice on the film challenges Hanada to come and do battle with some other assassins. Hanada ventures into battle and defeats all five enemies, only to be confronted by his real enemy, No. 1 (Koji Nambara), the man he took to Nagano, who plans to grind down and destroy his last rival just for the hell of it.
Summarizing the plot can only partly communicate how all this unfolds in Suzuki’s fractured, oblique, intensely fetishist sequences. The Byzantine world of intrigue and insensible relations of power and lust is reflected in the style, all acute dividing angles shot in deep focus with mysterious nooks of the frame. Branded to Kill is fundamentally the drama of a man who assumes himself to be a man of power and certainty and discovers he’s anything but. The story follows the ritualised structure of so much Asian genre cinema that has the hero confronting an escalating series of professional and physical challenges from his opponents, and yet Suzuki’s film also eats away at the cliché of the arch-professional lone warrior. Unlike, for instance, Itto Ogami of the Lone Wolf and Cub series or, indeed, Melville’s Le Samourai or Walker of Point Blank, Hanada is not ennobled by an awesome ascetic stoicism. He begins the film icy cool, sneering in disdain at Kasuga’s incompetence, and is steadily reduced to a shambling, despairing wreck. The causes of his steady disintegration are laid out by Kasuga, whose degeneration he blames on loneliness, leading to women and drink, the two great pitfalls of the profession: soon Hanada gives in to one and then the other.
The narrative is suspended by Hanada’s three fraught, intimate relationships with Mami, Misako, and No. 1. Mami’s animalistic sexual encounters with her husband seem to reflect her inner certainty that “we’re all beasts,” a theory the film bears out. When Hanada shoots her through the head, her blood swirls in the flushing toilet over which her head hangs; later, the same image returns in a moment of pure madness in a restaurant washroom when Hanada’s equilibrium has been almost completely destroyed by No. 1. The narrative sustains a series of reversals. Mami’s veneer of chic conceals raw, masochistic carnality. The ethereal, misanthropic, almost ghostly Misako surrounded by images of gothic fetidness (dead birds, butterflies, soil, leaves, and most constantly, water) becomes an icon of selfless love, tortured almost to death without losing her faintly satisfied smile. And Hanada’s uber masculinity is so deeply undermined that he’s reduced to walking around in one of Misako’s midriff-baring tops and strolling arm-in-arm with No. 1 (the only way they can be sure the other can’t get away or get hold of a weapon).
Misako, the ultimate femme fatale, seems as much an angel of death as the Snow Witch in Kwaidan and is the butterfly that blinds Hanada’s perfect aim. But she’s also associated with the decayed remnants of a natural world that has otherwise been entirely exiled from the world of apartment buildings and ruined institutional monstrosities. When he’s in a particularly dire place, Hanada showers dead humus on his head, weeping for Misako, desperate for some return to that natural world. When Hanada meets Misako, she’s driving in the rain with her convertible open to the elements, utterly soaked. When she comes to his apartment, Mami becomes upset, so Hanada throws the naked Mami out into the rain where she claws despairingly at the window, as electric an image as any in the cinema of illogical emotion. The tables are turned as Hanada’s increasingly hysterical, unwound machismo grapples with the impossibility of penetrating Misako’s psyche.
As a pervert and a thug, Hanada is hardly a figure fit for heroic identification. And yet his situation compels in the urgency of his attempts to avoid being consumed. Hitman films usually are commentaries on the relationship between the individual and conformity. Branded to Kill makes the observation that to be a perfect killer is to essentially lose individuality and become a force of total nihilism: the compromise of the human existence, and the pleasures of that existence, is to accept weakness. The relentless striving to reach the top, to triumph in this rattiest of rat races, is skewered. The actual point to the business—the diamond-smuggling concern—is far less important than the mutual use and abuse of human beings.
Hanada is at the mercy of a hierarchical designation that seems almost deistically ordained. His struggle is with pure fate as much as it is with a concrete opponent. Fate ruins Hanada when the butterfly ruins his shot, and No 1 will unquestionably kill Hanada and destroy him mentally before doing it physically. Or at least that’s what No 1 thinks: Hanada eventually resolves to try and outwit No .1 and claim that post for himself. That he succeeds, but destroys himself and Misako at the same time, confirms that Hanada is good, but not quite good enough: to become No. 1 is to become a force of pure nihilism. This is a philosophical statement, but also a vicious joke on the desire to climb that corporate ladder, leading to the ultimate version of the cliché that it’s lonely at the top. Although Hanada finally beats No. 1, he’s still reduced to dancing around as bullets whiz about him, just like Kasuga, and the competition finally lays everything waste.
Parsing the substance of Branded to Kill is secondary nonetheless to simply absorbing its delirious visuals. Suzuki stages some excellent, uniquely terse action sequences, especially in Hanada’s battle on the breakwater pier, where he uses a pulley to drag his car over him as a shield that allows him to get close enough to take out his enemies. Other, more humdrum sequences are just as inventive. For example, when Hanada and Kasuga believe they’re being followed, they pull over suddenly, and the pursuing car passes them by. Suzuki cuts to close-ups of clapping hands and laughing mouths accompanied by blaring music to indicate it’s just a car full of rowdy teens in a fusion of unique visual technique and aural cues.
Another is the scene where Mami scratches on the glass in the rain, her fingernails squeaking excruciatingly to her face is a mask of pure woe. The only real clanger in the film is an overwrought moment where Hanada drifts in a delirium while being assaulted by animated butterflies. Suzuki’s direction is aided immeasurably by Kazue Nagatsuka’s startling, deep-focus cinematography by which even the smallest aspect in a frame can become a point of necessary attention. The film’s sound effects deserve accolades, too, and the way Suzuki uses imposing edifices and ruins to emphasise labyrinthine mystery in a genuinely dreamlike realm.
Branded to Kill is one of the best films of the ’60s. l