Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, December 21, 2009

殺しの烙印 (Branded to Kill)

Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Misako Nakajo: My dream is to die.

Shot in 3 ½ weeks, edited in a day, filmed for a modern day of equivalent of $200,000, Seijun Suzuki's 殺しの烙印 , or Branded to Kill, is a pop-noir masterpiece. It's a gritty revelation of crime noir mixed with devastating satire, Japanese yakuza pulp, and pop art. It's unlike anything that had ever been made, so it should come as no surprise that it's director was promptly fired after making it for creating “incomprehensible films.” Blacklisted for this piece of radical film making, Suzuki was unable to make a film for ten years. But forty years after it's initial release, Branded to Kill has been quoted by directors as varied as Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino as an influence. It has become a cult classic that has inspired countless knockoffs, few, if any, of which have been able to match the power of is story and style. But yet, it remains one of the most confusing films that I have ever seen in my entire life.

So why am I including such a bizarre film in my blog if I am not even sure if I understand it? Well, I'd like to refer to what Peter Bogdanovich told his friend Orson Welles concerning his film Touch of Evil (1958), ``I'd seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story.” Just because I didn't understand everything about a movie doesn't mean that I won't like it. I've seen six of Suzuki's films. I've only understood three of them. But I liked all of them. Despite the confusing story lines, every time I see a film by Seijun Suzuki I know I am seeing something consistently different from regular cinema. His films evoke the same feelings that John-Luc Godard does in that we may not always know what is going on, but we like it. We know that we have never seen anything like it before and probably never will again. So to this end, I say that Seijun Suzuki is a great director. And if that is so, then Branded to Kill is his masterpiece.

It concerns Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) who just so happens to be the Japanese underworld's Number Three hitman. The movie follows him through encounters with other ranked hitmen, a femme fatale with a deathwish, four “jobs,” and a fight againt the Number One hitman which climaxes in an empty boxing ring. The various set pieces and scenes are legendary, like Goro sniping a hit from behind a billboard's animatronic cigarette lighter or when he kills another target by shooting a gun up a pipe drain into his face as he leans over a sink. They are endowed with a chaotic poetry that elevates them into the stratosphere of quality pulp. They are so convincing that by the time Goro misses a hit because a butterfly lands on his sniper, we completely believe that it is possible.

Of course, the characters themselves are works of art. Shishido makes Goro completely convincing as a suave hitman. Shishido, who underwent cheek augmentation surgery in 1957 to gain a more “ruggedly handsome” look had long played villains in action movies. After working with Suzuki he began to gain a “tough-guy loner image,” and he channels it brilliantly. As a character, Goro is especially memorable for one particular eccentricity: the smell of boiling rice acts as his personal aphrodisiac, causing him to have violent sex with whatever woman he currently has on hand. Suzuki later explained that this curious habit was established in order to make him seem like a more quintessentially “Japanese” killer. Suzuki later quipped, "If he were Italian, he'd get turned on by macaroni, right?"

Much can be said about Goro's two love interests, as well. An argument can be made about how misogynistic the character of Goro's wife Mami Hanada. She walks around the house naked (in fact Suzuki casted her actress, Mariko Ogawa, because she was the only one willing to due nude scenes), is constantly within reach when Goro wants sex, and is ultimately killed when she tries to kill him. But I disagree. She comes off more as a woman who knows what she wants as a woman. She doesn't come off as a bimbo, but more of a woman who constantly keeps her options weighed. It's too bad that she attempted matricide on the Number Three hitman in Japan. One wonders if she would have survived the movie if she had just “kept her place.”

But then the real curiosity is Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari), what with her apartment decorated with dead butterflies and cloaked in their patchwork of shadows. They first meet when Goro's car breaks down and she picks him up in her open top convertible. At first, she is his contact, providing him with jobs from her boss, Yabuhara. Then, she tries to become his murderer. But eventually she becomes his lover (time to boil the rice). But ultimately, she becomes his bait for the showdown with the mysterious Number One hitman. Whatever her role, she remains a dark, sometimes frightening woman with a powerful death wish. As she says in her first line, “My dream is to die.”

But what about the Number One hitman? He is played by a delightful Koji Nanbara as he first psychologically tortures Goro before he attempts to kill him. His role is too delicious to spoil in a review, so all I will tell you is that his methods are unorthodox, but cruelly efficient. One wonders if he might be a distant Japanese relative of Hannibal Lector in the manner that he likes to tease his prey before he moves in for the kill.

But these are merely characters. The real delight is seeing them all morph into a glorious whole. Although the finished product is at times disjointed, it remains one of the hallmarks of the Japanese crime genre. By watching it, you are witnessing the birth of something that no ordinary director could create, and no sane production company could finance. It's a good thing that Suzuki didn't use storyboards. If he did, and any studio executives had seen them, it would have resulted in the abortion of one of the crime cinema's most stylistically bold and unequivocally daring films. It's so good, you can practically smell the rice boiling.



  1. I'm intrigued. What exactly was it about the film that was hard to understand?

  2. The entire film. Trying to recall it after watching it for the first time is like trying to recall scenes from a dream Key characters and scenes stick out, but on the whole you are left with a feeling of "what the heck just happened?"

    I had to research the film after I first saw it to learn what I had just seen. The narrative isn't very coherent. Then again, narrative cohesion was never Seijun Suzuki strong suit. Many of his films are almost indecipherable.

  3. great critique, it certainly is a confusing picture, but I think Suzuki wanted that. I wrote a little about it on my own new blog, hope you get a chance to read.

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  5. Just may be the coolest, most stunning film I've ever seen! Remarkable mise en scène. Great soundtrack. Shades of Antonioni as well as New Wave. Wow. I didn't find it hard to understand, although it's not clear to me who fires the last two shots after Hanada disappears from the ring.