Branded to Kill Review
With Nikkatsu all out of scripts to develop by 1967, Seijun Suzuki offered his services to make a film - as usual - cheaply and quickly for them. As a result they allowed him to make Branded to Kill, and then they repaid his generosity by firing him. Interestingly, the type of product they wanted from him, as they did every single time, was the kind that was starting to lose them money. In the end they told Suzuki that he was a direct cause of their financial drought, citing Branded to Kill as an incoherent mess. The reality was that they had to get rid of someone, and why not the ever defiant Suzuki? The director hit back by filing a lawsuit against them. He won several years later with the backing of the Japan Director’s Guild, and the truth eventually came out about the company trying to hide their losses. By then his reputation had already been tarnished and after 1971 he practically disappeared for almost ten years, only working on various bits and pieces for television, before he returned as a freelancer. Meanwhile, Nikkatsu had moved toward making Roman-Porno features in a bid to recoup losses and stray away from conventional television at the time. Oh, the irony!
The plot revolves around an elite hit-man named Hanada (Shishido Jo), only he’s not as elite as he’d like to be. See, he’s only No. 3 on the list of quality hit-men doing to rounds in Tokyo. Instead of focusing mainly on their jobs at hand they’d much rather kill one another in order to secure the No. 1 ranked position. Currently at the top spot is The Phantom, who Hanada suspects doesn’t even exist, but when he kills off a few other assassins he soon finds that Phantom is very real indeed.
One day Hanada is approached by a woman named Misako (Mari Annu), who asks of him to kill an acquaintance of hers. There is a price of course: if he fails he’ll lose face and he’ll undoubtedly be hunted down by other assassins. And what do you know - fail he does. With his target missed, Hanada’s girlfriend Mami (Ogawa Mariko) is ordered by a criminal boss to take care of him. As she tries to woo him into the sack on several occasions, Misako comes back into his life and he soon finds himself becoming obsessed with her, almost as much as his rice, which he smells on a regular basis. Misako on the other hand keeps cupboards full of dead butterflies and inserts pins into the necks of birds. Bit of a nut-job? Not ’arf. But the walls around Hanada are beginning to collapse, and soon he finds himself in a twisted cat and mouse game, with Phantom watching over his every move.
Branded to Kill isn’t so much Suzuki’s own doing, as it is the combined efforts of four thirsty writers who were totally up for taking the film in a direction unlike any other: Guryu Hachiro; Kimura Takeo (long time friend of Suzuki and production designer for his best regarded features); Lupin III writer Yamatoya Atsushi and Sone Chusei, who would be the only fellow from the group to follow Nikkatsu in making Roman-Porno movies. With four writers on board and Suzuki’s vivacious work ethics, Branded to Kill is the ultimate in no-holds-barred film making; that is to say it’s a complete mad house, breaking just about every rule and frankly my dear, not really giving a damn. Aside from the obvious aesthetic nuances it’s difficult to glean any kind of social message from Suzuki’s final Nikkatsu presentation. Had he known he was about to lose his job it may have been one giant “Fuck You” aimed in their general direction, although in hindsight it could be considered that still as he generally took little pleasure in making pictures for them. But, on the outset it’s very simple by nature and invokes the kind of criticisms that were already being filtered into various others features, including Suzuki’s previous efforts. But there’s one thing that nobody can deny and that is to say Branded to Kill is a remarkable cinematic achievement, a shambolic experiment that reaches deep into a surreal mind and comes away as being a totally unique experience.
Seijun Suzuki always seemed to be the most comfortable, if not the most daring, if not the most fulfilled, when working with a colour palette. His films from the mid to late sixties were like exploding rainbows, so it is indeed curious to see him switch back to black and white, with Fighting Elegy first of all preceding Branded to Kill. As he proves, however, there are no boundaries or limits to spilling one’s mind onto celluloid. It’s almost impossible to truly make sense of how it looks, just as it is hard to deconstruct from any single standpoint. Nonetheless it’s certainly a unique sight to behold thanks to cinematographer Nagatsuka Kazue and art director Kawahara Sukezo. Branded to Kill’s story takes third place next to its inescapable sights and sounds, where a hit-man’s world gradually collapses around him. I could sit here and try to come up with some kind of great meaning as to what Suzuki’s flurry of images represent within this noir-ish landscape but it’s probably better to simply yield to its own crazed devices; it’s like absorbing 90 minutes of eye-candy, but this candy is tainted with crack, which at least is still healthier than actual crack and a lot cheaper as well I’d wager. From Hanada obsessing over his rice cooker, to Misako and her fascination with dead butterflies and birds, Suzuki implies an all round sense of adoration, with Hanada ultimately lusting over Misako to which the tale eventually comes around full circle. But while some areas are significantly easier to approach, others get by on their own free will to distort reality. Suzuki wildly experiments with various mediums, including at one point showering Hanada in cute little abstract drawings of birds, butterflies and rain, with natural sounds beginning to disorientate the picture, which serves to depict the man being dragged down further into the mud. A mud which envelops some kind of personal hell. A real muddy hell.
Seijun Suzuki is a very funny man. He might be cynical and show that side of himself all too often in his films but he’s also got a killer sense of humour and again with Branded to Kill he proves to be a ruthless joker. Perhaps impatience brings out the better in him, judging by half the things we witness in his final Nikkatsu film. As with the perfect companion piece Tokyo Drifter he doesn’t bother with a traditional narrative and as such he makes use of tighter than tight editing in order to move the story along. The result is that most of the time his transitions turn into comedy: Hanada locating two or three hit-men in the space of the first ten minutes paves the way for furious action sequences, each one being tinged with darkly comic undertones. We have a delirious shootout set under a bridge involving drunken loons and later, when Hanada locates Sakura hiding out in some kind of abandoned beach house, he lightly throws in a small petrol tank, only for the entire building - top to bottom - to erupt into flames a split-second later, before an ignited Sakura blazes across the sands and into a waiting car. An inventive showdown (though you’ll find all of the various kills to be equally unique) which takes place toward the end of the film at a pier makes for one of the film’s more memorable sequences, while even subtle effects, such as an animated butterfly which lands on Hanada’s sights proves to have its own little charm. Perhaps Suzuki’s humour threatens the final act of the film by its very silliness, being that we end up with Hanada sharing a room with the No. 1 killer in town: a battle of wits ensues, though in reality neither one would hesitate for a second before firing the first round. The film thus turns into The Odd Couple but with guns and black suits. The battling duo eat, sleep and go to the toilet together before deciding to settle the score in a dimly-lit boxing ring. But then that’s Seijun Suzuki for you. You can’t have a dig at him because at the end of the day it’s different. Plus it also has nudey women thrown in for good measure and a spellbinding Jazz score from frequent collaborator Yamamoto Naozumi, who shortly afterward went on to score an astonishing 48 Tora-San flicks over a thirty year period!
If Branded to Kill has any shortcomings they’re easily outweighed by its good looks and a wonderful cast. Headlining the feature is ol’ hamster cheeks himself, Shishido Jo. Alright that might not have the same kind of ring as Sinatra’s affectionate mantle but it’s still a fact anyway. Shishido was a huge Nikkatsu player during the late fifties to early sixties and prior to Branded to Kill he’d already worked with Suzuki, notably on Youth of the Beast (’63) and the startling Gate of Flesh (’64). His customised face made him instantly definable, though arguably his work on Branded to Kill is primarily that which has made him an even bigger name to this very day. It helped that his ideals were similar to Suzuki’s. And with all that said he’s simply great; you can believe that he could store a fair few ounces of rice in his cheeks for the winter, in fact I wonder why he never did while he was holed up in that apartment of his, tired and hungry? But seriously, Shishido is simply iconic here, or maybe laconic, perhaps both. Also impressive is nineteen year-old Mari Annu in her first major starring role. She had been bouncing around the Nikkatsu music halls when Suzuki chose her as the perfect foil for Shishido. Her Japanese/Indian heritage makes for a strikingly good looking woman, certainly one of the most memorable screen goddesses in Japanese cinema history. A bold statement you say? No, so there. These two, without a doubt, carry the entire picture; their relationship a beguiling study of slightly crazy people provides a solid enough backbone to Suzuki’s playful and endearingly peculiar machinations.
Yume’s Branded to Kill is a UK re-issue of the previous Second Sight release, with identical A/V - now part of their own Seijun Suzuki Collection. Anyone know where I can get a poster of this awesome artwork?
Presented in its original 2.35:1 Nikkatsu-Scope ratio (all the studios were using their name at the time in relation to this), Branded to Kill is given a nice anamorphic transfer, NTSC-PAL not withstanding. I suspect that the image could still be a little sharper, but what we have is a decent looking transfer that shows enough detail; obviously close shots fare better, but shadow detail is good, which is naturally an important factor here. Contrast is a little high and black levels aren’t quite perfect, but there’s very little to complain about.
The Japanese 2.0 soundtrack is quite reflective of the track supplied on Yume’s Tokyo Drifter, in that it also has a slightly annoying high-pitched squeal that forces you to keep audio levels down quite a bit. Otherwise dialogue is presented cleanly and the swing-tastic jazzy sounds resonate well under the given limitations of the original source material.
Optional English subtitles are included and for the most part they’re excellent. As with Tokyo Drifter they forgo subtitling names if they’re mentioned too often, or if it’s obvious who’s speaking.
The main bonus feature on the disc is another interview with Seijun Suzuki, this time conducted in June 2006 at the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead. Running for 36 minutes, Roger Clarke asks the director, with the help of a translator, about Suzuki’s career with Nikkatsu and how he left, after which he took them to court. They talk about Suzuki’s working philosophy and directors he has since influenced. A fair amount of time is spent talking about his most recent film Princess Raccoon, which is obviously why he’s in the country. This ranges from casting and directing style, leading on to a Q&A session from the audience, in which Suzuki provides some frank answers.
The interview takes place on a dimly-lit stage, with just red lighting shone upon the participants. The video quality is generally poor and the questions are difficult to make out at times. Again, the tape cuts out with 8 minutes left to run and then comes back on with Suzuki already answering a question we missed.
There are also Yume trailer reels for their Seijun Suzuki and Yasuzo Masumura titles, in addition to an essay by Tony Rayns on the back of the sleeve art.
Who knows what it would have been like had Suzuki stuck around at Nikkatsu. Would they have still gone into producing Roman-Porno pictures, or would they have denied us such an interesting decade of sleaze? Seijun Suzuki might have helped to make it even more seminal for them and with such desperate measures being taken under financially desolate times they could have done with all the help they could get.
Branded to Kill is widely regarded as being Seijun Suzuki’s masterpiece but I’m not sure if I can put it quite in that bracket. It is bold, surreal and defiant and shows the director as being a true iconoclast but it most definitely is one that requires the right mood. Still, put this alongside Tokyo Drifter and you’ve got yourself a magnificent night in. They’re like two peas in a pod but replace the peas with bitter plums.