Dir: Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Jo Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa.
Running Time: 91 minutes
Released UK in Dual Format from Arrow Video 18th August 2014.
The only flaw in the work of Seijun Suzuki is that he was at least two decades ahead of his time. He made 42 films for the Japanese studio Nikkatsu over a 12 years period. Many of them were routine B-pictures but signs of what was to follow could be found in early works such as Underworld Beauty (1958) and Take Aim At The Police Van (1960). With Youth Of The Beast (1963), he started to explore a more idiosyncratic and daring approach in the films he was contracted to make. Increasingly strong and innovative movies followed including Kanto Wanderer (1963), The Flowers And The Angry Waves (1964), Gate Of Flesh (1964) and Story Of A Prostitute (1965), but after directing Tattooed Life (1965), Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori stepped in and warned him to tone it down and play it straight. His response included the masterpiece Tokyo Drifter (1966), and its equally impressive companion piece Branded To Kill (1967). Nikkatsu fired him and he didn’t direct again until 1977.
Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido) is the #3 killer in the criminal underworld but his home life is a mess. His wife (Mariko Ogawa) is unhappy because of his constant brooding at his rank, and at his fetish that means he only gets turned on sexually by the smell of boiling rice. She is also having an affair with Hanada’s boss. After an assignment to protect a mysterious stranger ends in a mass shoot-out, Hanada is approached by Misako (Annu Mari), a beautiful woman obsessed with death who wants him to carry out the killing of a foreigner, but during the attempted assassination, a butterfly rests on the telescopic sight of his rifle and he misses, killing an innocent bystander in the process. With his ranking gone and reputation in tatters, his boss hires his own wife to try and kill him. When Masako is kidnapped, Hanada is sent a film of her being tortured. Believing her to be dead he finally becomes embroiled in a cat and mouse showdown with the #1 killer himself (Koji Nanbara), the same man he was once hired to protect.
The irony of Seijun Suzuki’s firing is that he actually delivered what Nikkatsu asked for, a fairly routine gangster movie, but the style and fragmentary editing technique he employed to make it are something else entirely. The film is packed with striking images: Misako’s apartment decorated butterflies, the shoot out on the beach that climaxes in a man running from a burning building in flames, the bizarre methods Hanada uses to carry out his hits including shooting a man through the plug hole of a sink as he washes his hands, a dead woman’s hair swirling around in the toilet bowl, another shoot-out with Hanada using a moving car for cover, Hanada hiding out in his apartment being taunted by his nemesis who it seems could shoot him any time he wishes and the the climactic confrontation with the #1 killer in a boxing ring.
Suzuki was himself influenced by the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, and his sixties films from Youth Of The Best onward seem to follow a similar stylistic path to that of Melville’s fellow countrymen who went on to form the new wave (it’s interesting to note that while Branded To Kill was being vilified in it’s native country, John Boorman’s equally innovative Point Blank (1967) was hailed as minor classic in America and Europe). If Nikkatsu had a point at all it’s that the style of the telling is so distracting, it takes a few viewings to get the fairly sparse story straight in your mind. Though he was effectively cut off in his prime, Seijun Suzuki is still one of the most significant film-makers of his era. His influence can be seen in Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer (2001), Kitano Takeshi’s Sonatine (1993), Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), John Woo’s The Killer (1989), Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999) and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour Or Humanity (1973) and its four sequels.
Suzuki returned to directing with A Tale Of Sorrow And Sadness (1977) and Zigeunerweisen (1980) which is highly regarded in Japan but virtually unseen in the rest of the world. In 2001 Suzuki directed Pistol Opera which was a sort of sequel to / remake of Branded To Kill no where near as impressive as the original. He is now effectively retired.
Branded To Kill has been released on DVD several times before by Second Sight and Yume Pictures, but Arrow’s new Blu-ray / DVD dual format release is the best the film has ever looked. The new transfer – using the same materials as the Criterion release in the US – is astonishing. The sleek black & white photography is rendered with sparkling clarity on the high definition disc.
Extras include short interviews with Suzuki and the star Jo Shishido, but the big bonus is the inclusion of the feature length Trapped In Lust (1973), the roman porno remake of Branded To Kill directed by Atsushi Yamatoya, a screenwriter on the original who also wrote Suzuki’s comeback feature, A Tale Of Sorrow And Sadness. It’s no classic but is worth seeing if only for the genuinely creepy and unhinged sequence where Hoshi’s wife and her lover are menaced by a giant hit man who does all his speaking through his associate who appears to be a three foot tall ventriloquists dummy. It’s such a bizarre scene it appears to have strayed in from another movie entirely. Though the colour remake is more sexually explicit than the black and white original, it’s Suzuki’s film that is the more erotically charged of the two. If you are interested in Japanese cinema at all, Branded To Kill is essential viewing.
Rating: 10 / 10