Noirvember: Branded To Kill

Continuing our crime movie month with a look at Seijun Suzuki’s radical reinterpretation of the Japanese gangster movie.

To the uninitiated, a Japanese gangster movie entitled Branded To Kill may sound like ideal fodder for an evening of brainless, beer-sodden viewing – an eruption of neat testosterone; an action-packed cavalcade of bullets and breasts. Within twenty minutes of hitting the play button, however, such expectations will be severely challenged as the clichéd norms of the genre are given an absurdist twist and hurled into a maelstrom of confusion. Half an hour in and the unsuspecting viewer will be anxiously pondering whether their Friday night lager has somehow been spiked with industrial-strength psychedelics. You see, Branded To Kill doesn’t just defy trite gangster movie conventions, it gleefully tramples over all commercial cinematic values.

From the off, it’s clear that director Seijun Suzuki – who had already pushed the genre in new and outrageous directions in Youth of the Beast – doesn’t want us to take Branded To Kill entirely seriously. The main protagonist Goro Hanada (the inimitable Jo Shishido) is a skilled, respected hitman – a formidable killing machine, albeit one whose credibility is somewhat undermined by the huge wads of cotton wool that inflate his cheeks to hamster-like proportions. After receiving his latest instructions at a sleazy bar and becoming embroiled in a midnight car chase, he embarks on a crazed shooting spree across various rural locations. Numerous adversaries are gunned down in what would be typical gangster movie fashion if it wasn’t for the breathless pace, maddening incoherence – you’ll neither know nor care who exactly is being killed at any point – and moments of extremely broad comedy (the dying victim who covers his own face with a coat). Then things start to become very weird indeed….

As revealed in a flashback scene, Hanada is stuck in a marriage with the psychotic, childlike Mami (Mariko Ogawa) but finds true love in the arms of fellow underworld assassin Misako (Anne Mari). A birdlike woman with startlingly large eyes, Misako introduces herself to a mesmerised Hanaka with the words “I hope to die”. Her character proves to be an intriguing, inscrutable and haunting presence for the remainder of the film. Her near-catatonic demeanour and unexplained penchant for the dead exotic butterflies that adorn the walls of her minimalistic apartment make her a figure of unknowable, poetic mystery (not to mention a proto-Goth icon). As his obsession grows, Hanada’s previously limited emotional palette expands and – considered in the context of this joyless, violent world devoid of compassion and warmth – this gradual awakening forms the conceptual backbone of the story (even if the film never lowers itself to engage with our own softer emotions). Lest readers worry that the film is wimping out, rest assured that this newly-discovered sensitivity does not in any way mean an end to his gangster career and Branded To Kill’s mid-section is still frequently punctuated by relentless gunfire and strewn with black-suited Japanese men sporting plasticine bullet wounds to the forehead.

Misako is eventually abducted and tortured with a flamethrower by Hanada’s employers. Learning of her fate via a projected cine film of her suffering, he tries to interact with the image in a moment of pathetic desperation (one of the film’s most powerful sequences). The stage is then set for a climactic battle between our (anti) hero and Japan’s number one hitman (Koji Nanbara) – but not before both engage in a nonsensical psychological game that involves them sharing a living space while handcuffed to one another. This makes lavatorial activities rather impractical resulting in one of the film’s comedy highlights.

If the plot outline sounds unorthodox, the ceaseless experimental cinematography (negative images, animated graphics, anarchic editing) and surreal imagery firmly secure Branded To Kill’s position in the Most Bizarre Exploitation Movies of the 1960’s Top Twenty. And make no mistake – this is most assuredly an exploitation movie, being chockful of gratuitous nudity, softcore sex and violence. Suzuki insists that he was simply trying to make the most ‘entertaining’ film possible but the final product indicates that his real ambitions were far loftier. There’s a genuine sophistication here; a refusal to spoon-feed the audience and an insatiable, playful desire to challenge our expectations of both the form and the genre. Branded To Kill is subversive to the core and as such, it’s bound to test the patience of the more conservative cinemagoer just as much now as it must have done back in 1967. In addition to its quirky, metaphorical and sometimes unsettlingly graphic imagery – the forcing of a fake eyeball into its socket being a notable highlight – the film is classically beautiful to behold in many places. The artfully composed street scenes, rendered in stark, crisp monochrome create a noirish sense of foreboding; the atmosphere of palpable menace further heightened by the sordid Sixties jazz score. Meanwhile, the forlorn theme tune reveals the heart of the story; a desperate, doomed yearning for love and peaceful, sensual pleasures – perhaps symbolised by Hanada’s often futile attempts to enjoy his beloved rice – in a hostile environment where human life is often extinguished mechanically, without a trace of conscience.

Cited by Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino as an influence, this wild absurdist classic fully deserves the respectful critical appraisal that it now receives, a respect that for many years eluded it as Western critics in particular simply found it incomprehensible. If the idea of Godard and Bunuel collaborating on an Oriental pop-art/film-noir project sounds appetising, Branded To Kill is guaranteed to be an enthralling experience. On the other hand, those with less adventurous tastes might be left cold. Suffice to say, anyone who demands nothing more than a linear narrative and gritty realism will be left hopelessly dazed and, most likely, weeping for their mummy. You have been warned.

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2 comments

  1. Saw it once some years ago and was perplexed but still fascinated by its unconventional style; would also recommend Suzuki’s “Tokyo Drifter”, released the year before, another Yakuza thriller which also has a complicated, murky narrative but has a dazzling use of colour and mise-en-scene, stylish art direction, and mixes pop-art, surrealism, American musicals and western genres in an irresistible brew. The production company Nikkatsu weren’t too happy with such cinematic experimentation, however, merely wanting straightforward, by-the-numbers programmers; Suzuki was sacked and didn’t make another film for ten years after these two cult classics.

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