Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Japan in the '60s was a prolific provider of film entertainment, and in striving for individuality
the top directors took some genres to extremes of violence and sex. As bizarre a crime film as ever
made, Branded to Kill is an effort to extend a highly creative, weirdly idiosyncratic career
by being even more weird and less commercial. Director Seijun Suzuki succeeded so well, he put
an end to his career for ten years.
Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is a hitman with strange habits, which include beating up
his faithless girlfriend Mariko (Mami Hanada) and savoring the aroma of freshly cooked rice. When an
accident causes him to fumble a hit, he finds himself declassed from his position in the underworld,
and made a target for the top-ranked killer, No. 1 (Koji Nambara).
In the early 90's, cinema clubs repopularized Japanese genre pictures in America, especially
crime and horror films that had been a staple of the culture in the 60s. Japan's crime films were
made under a completely different system of censorship, that allowed for the depiction of
extreme violence and sex, depending on how it was stylized.
As a story, Branded to Kill is simple enough, but the way it is told breaks so many rules
of standard filmmaking that Seijun Suzuki's distributors must have been baffled. It wasn't
a matter of demanding cuts or a re-editing, because the director's style was so fragmented, his
odd cutting patterns so baffling, they wouldn't have known where to start. Normal continuity in
a scene will be interrupted by cutaways to extraneous subject matter. Goro's relationship with
his girl is sketched in disconnected shots that start in mid-action and end abruptly. One cutaway
is to fingernails scratching down a sheet of glass - which is the basic effect of the whole picture.
If there's a sense of humor here, its a conceptual one. Goro's various hits, using a high-powered
rifle, are conducted under absurd conditions like shooting from behind a billboard, a la
From Russia with Love. A grotesque effect shows a man removing another's false eye, then
being shot by Goro through the drain-hole of a sink. It's a bizarre juxtaposition that somehow
relates to images in Psycho.
Gangster Goro undergoes a classical downfall. A killing hired by a mysterious woman (Mari Annu)
goes wrong when an innocent butterfly lands on his gunbarrel and causes him to misfire. Already
just #3 in the hitman hierarchy, now he's typed as a total loser. His unfaithful girlfriend tries
to kill him, and he drifts toward the mysterious 'other' woman, who now unaccountably has
butterflies all over the walls of her apartment. Later on, cut-out butterfly patterns are
superimposed on the picture. These visual shenanigans may be hard to follow, but it's definitely
Suzuki's camera that's telling the story.
Previously in Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki had shown a willingess to subordinate narrative to form,
with standard gangland confrontations serving as excuses to pull off exercises in extreme
compositions and to experiment with hallucinatory colors. Drifter's final battle takes
place in a bizarre nightclub of solid colors and vast expanses - what happens is nowhere near as
important as the director's style.
In Branded to Kill, the stress is on exacting compositions, strange cutting and dislocated
continuity. Sometimes the style adds to the intensity of scenes (Suzuki likes shots where a patch of
light isolates a person's eyes in a dark screen) and sometimes the disjointed visuals are a
barrier to any but a surface appreciation of what's going on. Following the action isn't always easy,
even though the film has enough gunfire for three crime pictures, and a grotesque death scene every
few minutes. One by fire is particularly disturbing.
The characters are curious variations on genre
staples - the hitman with odd habits, the sensual girlfriend ("We are beasts. Let's be beasts
together"), the various gangster bosses, the rival professional. The only one afforded any real
distinction is the 'hero', a sometimes disgusting fellow with a distorted face. 1
He's given a range of superficial 'character traits', mainly an obsession with the smell of fresh
rice, that fills time and, in proven genre form, substitutes for character development.
The movie ends with a very stylized, non-narrative climax duel in a boxing ring between Goro and his
nemesis, No. 1. It's fragmented, interrupted by strange music, and has the kinetic feel of the muscle
spasms in one of Goro's dying victims. You get the impression that director Suzuki is riffing on the
gangster form, trying out new abstractions. What he comes up with is a film for cineasts and art
students. The tone is difficult to read, ranging from impenetrable genre stiffness from one moment, to
broad effects (screaming, odd behavior) the next. There's humor here, but it's well hidden from
Western temperaments; Branded to Kill can skate along on its own just by being so different.
Branded to Kill was an earlier Criterion release of one of its last laserdisc offerings, and
was probably came out so soon because legal clearances for a DVD were already in place. The
b&w transfer is of the 'not great but this is all that was available' kind - shallow contrast, and
little detail. It's not 16:9 enhanced, being released before Criterion's commitment to that critical
feature, and shows every indication of being a repurposed Japanese video transfer. This is a shame,
for the film looks as if an original print would be exhilarating. The disc doesn't let one appreciate
the film as one should; somebody already tipped off to the exotic content will find a treasure here,
but the casual viewer isn't going to be grabbed by any rush of visual excitement.
Composer John Zorn shows off his collection of Joe Shishido memorabilia as an extra on the disc, and
provides the liner notes which explain how his personal fascination for Japanese cinema began in 1984
when he saw all kinds of films that had never been exported to the states on Tokyo television. A
video interview with the director is provided, where Suzuki comes off as a delightful old artist who
was driven to overstep the limits imposed by his commercial sponsors. He starts by saying he began
work for Nikkatsu because he needed to make a living, an admission you don't hear from many
'cinema artists'. His explanation for his cutting style is just as simple - conventional spacial and
temporal continuity simply don't interested him. Locked into 'B' movie plots without a chance to
create characters, his instinct was to play radical games with form. As such, Branded to Kill
breaks down like a comic book of images, a form that younger, Anime - soaked younger audiences will
probably embrace - if they're into nihilistic, old-fashioned crime tales.
The IMDB claims that a slightly longer version exists than Criterion's cut.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Branded to Kill rates:
Supplements: Joe Shishido poster montage, 1997 Seijun Suzuki video interview.
Packaging: Yin Yang keep case
Reviewed: July 8, 2002
1. We're told that Joe Shishido purposely had his face altered, and his
cheeks accentuated, to give himself this strange, puffed out chipmunk look, after which change his
popularity as a movie 'bad man' soared. As his appearance is neither attractive nor serves any
visual purpose I can think of, I have to conclude that it was some kind of star gimmick to get
attention. So much in this movie is Japanese ... understanding how 'hip' functioned in '60s
Japan is way beyond my range.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson