“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)
DIRECTED BY: Seijun Suzuki
FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa
PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer. He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim. By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.
- The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation. Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre. As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets. Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films. Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date. Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.” Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
- Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up. Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
- The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
- Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look. This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
- Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
- Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle. The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade. Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic. Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape. But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.
Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill
COMMENTS: Branded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt adjective. Any one of the following would be a more appropriate descriptor: Mysterious. Challenging. Cool. Fascinating. Provocative. Beautiful. Exhilarating. Playful. Startling. Mythic. Intoxicating. Unforgettable.
The film’s reputation for incomprehensibility comes from Nikkatsu studio’s infamous explanations for its firing of Seijun Suzuki after the director presented them with Branded to Kill; a word translated as “incomprehensible” appears time and time again in the studio’s complaints. (Writer David Chute wasn’t helping things when, years later, he mused “[i]f you consider the movie soberly, it’s hard to deny the bosses had a point”). By unexpectedly injecting avant-garde techniques into a commercial yakuza potboiler, Suzuki created a trailblazer that shocked audiences in 1967; but after 40 more years of experience in genre films with fractured, experimental narratives (including popular hits like Pulp Fiction and Memento), you would think this crazed little thriller it would have lost it’s ability to confound audiences. Nope.
Though the buzz-word “incomprehensible” will stick to Branded to Kill as if—well, as if critics had molded the letters onto a red-hot iron poker and seared them onto the movie ‘s flesh—it’s an exaggeration. The story is difficult and the meaning obscure, but the movie wouldn’t have survived this long in the world’s consciousness if it had been literally impossible to comprehend. There are two senses—the narrative sense and the thematic sense—in which Branded to Kill could be charged with being “incomprehensible” (or, to put it more precisely, with being “challenging”). On closer examination, the ambiguities Suzuki introduces into the film don’t make impenetrable and alienating; but his stubborn flouting of seemingly every cinematic convention does force the audience to adjust his expectations and approach the movie from a novel perspective. Appreciating a weird movie requires the viewer to adopt a weird approach.
Suzuki’s approach to storytelling resembles a pointillist painting: if the viewer gets too close to the piece and tries to examine the details, the individual brush strokes look like incomprehensible blobs of paints. But, when the viewer stands at the proper distance from the canvas and looks at it as a whole, a clear image emerges. The story of Branded to Kill is often illogical or magical in its small details. (Even if the laws of physics would allow Hanada to shoot a bullet straight up a drain pipe, how would he know when his target was bent directly over the drain?) Many times Suzuki omits transitions between scenes, suddenly popping Hanada into a new situation or a sudden shootout and leaving it to the viewer to fill in the gaps.
To see how Suzuki utilizes the pointillist technique, consider the long sequence between Hanada and Misako at her apartment. Hanada has been wounded in an assassination attempt and he knows that Misako works for the Organization and will be under orders to kill him. He’s nonetheless drawn to her apartment. When he gets there, he pulls his gun on her; she responds by pulling out a butterfly pin which she explains is deadly. She swipes it at him and he falls backwards; suddenly, in a dramatic non sequitur, he asks her to boil some rice (the smell of boiling rice is an aphrodisiac to the hitman). The walls of Misako’s apartment are decorated with pinned butterflies. Hanada confesses his passion for her but tells her thinks she will kill him. Misako tells her pet birds she loves them, which makes Hanada furious; he believes she’s teasing him. Misako reveals again that she longs for death, but says she knows Hanada will not kill her until he’s slept with her first. She falls on her couch and submissively raises her leg so he can remove her shoe and stocking. In a swoon of passion he falls on her but immediately pops up, disgusted, his hands full of dead butterflies. The couch she is lying on is covered with the insect corpses. She raises a pistol and fires at him as he runs out of the room and closes the door behind him. He peeks through the keyhole at her and we see her seductively lifting her skirt up and raising her stockings.
Viewed shot by shot and considered in chronological order, these scenes do not make much rational sense; but there is a very consistent—almost rigid—dream logic to them. Viewed close up the scenes appear as disconnected blobs of film, but when we step back and we see the image of a classic film noir hero encountering his femme fatale. A flawed protagonist is drawn against his will to an enticing but dangerous woman whose erotic interest barely masks motives of her own. The couple’s sexual maneuvering mixes sensuality and danger, here made as explicitly symbolic as possible by the images of pinned (penetrated) butterflies: the encounter takes place in a chamber festooned with beautiful, almost erotic corpses. This director believes that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the femme fatale’s motive is to use the hero to locate the hidden statuette or to use him as the instrument of her suicide; to him, it’s all a MacGuffin. Suzuki remains true to the noir mythology; though the sequence is muddled, the entire encounter has the same plot effect as if he’d laid out a scenario in painstaking detail in which Mikaso seduces Hanada so he will agree to kill her husband for the insurance money. Details aside, we understand the emotional reality between the two characters.
The entire plot follows that same strategy; details don’t seem to make sense, but a surprisingly familiar story emerges from them. Hanada is a gangster, but he follows a code; he struggles with external forces, and with his own weakness too. A second and third viewing of the film reveals that there’s far more rigor to the plot than is apparent on the surface. Hanada’s initial encounter with the alcoholic gangster who used to be ranked foreshadows what he will become by the third act. The diamond heist is laid out with perfect clarity. There’s a running subplot about his wife’s infidelity that’s easy to miss on a first go around but is perfectly consistent. Despite their magical, godlike powers, the jousting between Hanada and the mysterious Number One at the end of the film resembles the sparring and one-upmanship of gunfighters in a Western. It’s a simple story about a hitman who falls for a woman, loses his edge, is betrayed by his employer, and fights back against all odds after he appears to be psychically crushed. The story may jump around but the characters don’t change their functions; the plot has lacunae, but it doesn’t have holes. Suzuki violates laws of physics and cause and effect, but he doesn’t break his own rules or the principles of the cinematic myths he invokes. Don’t get hung up on the details any more than the director did, and you won’t find the plot incomprehensible.
Thematically, the charge of incomprehensibility may carry more weight. If you are trying to extract a didactic meaning from this fable, a narrowly defined “meaning,” you will find yourself frustrated. There are several peaks of emphasis that pop out of the movie’s landscape, however. One point is that Suzuki parodies the gangsters, and the macho philosophy that animates them, and makes them look absurd. These mobsters are obsessed with ranking and with moving up the rankings by playing by the Organization’s rules. But the code of honor they scrupulously attempt to follow leads them into ludicrous situations. Because Number One owes Hanada a debt, he can’t kill him outright without a warning and without extending every opportunity of fairness, which (coupled with his macho compulsion to toy with his prey) leads him to mount an ridiculously ritualized siege. At one point chivalry demands that the two tough guys go to the bathroom linked arm in arm. They must sleep next to each other on the same bed, with their arms tied to the bedpost, so neither can sneak off to get a gun while the other’s unconscious. “This is our fate,” Number One explains, as they lie side by side like man and wife.
Further, to get to the top of their criminal calling, the assassins must abandon that which makes them human. “There’s no love in our line of work… a killer must be inhuman,” Number One reminds Hanada. “Drink and women kill a killer” is the creed laid down by another professional. When Hanada indulges his human weakness—love for Misako—his capacities are compromised, he finds himself unable to kill reliably. His sexually cynical relationship with his concubine-like wife raised no such dilemmas. They indulged in athletic, sweaty, animalistic mating; he hit her, they called each other names, and they had brutal, powerful orgasms. “We’re beasts,” she says in between moans of pleasure. “Beast needs beast. That’s the best way.” But after becoming entranced by Misako, Hanada’s outlook changes. “You say we’re beasts? Well damn, I’m not!” That rebellion marks a turning point, and an intensification of his personal trials. Must we sacrifice love and other human necessities to become “Number One” in our own personal field of endeavor? None of us would make that bargain, but is there perhaps something admirable and heroic in those who do? Is humanity itself a tragic flaw?
The film’s constant preoccupation with death and fate also lends it an aura of significance. The film’s title weds the two ideas, suggesting one who has no choice but to kill. Death is Hanada’s profession, but he doesn’t begin to think about it until he himself is marked for extermination. His wife reminds him he’s going to die: “We’re going to die anyway, so make me feel good,” she purrs, standing in front of him nude. In an interesting sequence, after he botches the hit, Misako tells him he’s going to be killed. “I know,” the hitman says, nonchalantly dragging on a cigarette. “In our line of work it’s kill or be killed.” She rephrases: “You’re going to die.” “Die?” he asks, looking momentarily shocked before his smile returns. “Have you ever really thought about death?” she asks, and then departs. It’s apparent he hasn’t, and from this point on his confidence will wane and he will become vulnerable. Hanada’s view of fate changes: he suddenly realizes he is not only fated not only to kill (a job) or be killed (a professional hazard), but to die (an existential reality).
None of these obsessions need be corralled and made sense of, however, to enjoy the film, any more than the plot does. As pure style and spectacle, the movie is intoxicating, a constant delightful surprise. There are moments of dark humor, such as when a Number One calmly pees his pants and reprimands Hanada for giggling, or the vision Hanada sees of his wife’s shorn hair (it’s been shot off) swirling around in the toilet bowl. It’s unpredictable. The assassination scenes are magical. The action scenes are thrilling, if disorienting. The story drips with style and Sixties cool (the effective, hip bachelor pad soundtrack is literally “cool,” emulating the laid back West-coast jazz of the period). The cinematography is more glorious than any B-movie ever has a right to be: the melancholy shots of gorgeous Annu Mari, constantly photographed in or behind sheets of falling water, are spellbinding. Anyone with a pure love of movies as a form will find something to enjoy here—unless, like a Nikkatsu executive, they equate the term “good” with “easily comprehensible.”
Today Branded to Kill is called a “deconstruction” of the yakuza genre. Suzuki himself used a more direct and forceful term: “destruction.” Using the example of a particular Buddhist temple, he notes that when it was still standing, people would pass it by; it was taken for granted, and became just an unnoticed part of the landscape. It was only when the temple fell into ruins that people began to remember what once stood there and revere the site. “I think that what remains in the memory is not ‘construction’ but ‘destruction’… What is standing now isn’t really there. When it is demolished, the consciousness that it is, or was, there first begins to form.” In 1967, the fury of Suzuki’s rampaging style tore apart the moribund, formulaic yakuza film. Branded to Kill swept through the genre and left it in ruins, a littered mess of shootouts, betrayals, and scattered surplus cool. Looking at what remains, we can better glimpse the structure and meaning of what was once there; Suzuki makes this jumbled rubble of sex and death worthy of reverence.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a bizarre but beguiling chain of absurdist, [over the top], barely related elements… Occasionally mystifying, but always witty, inventive and dazzling to look at.”–Geoff Anderson, Time Out Film Guide
“…one of the most bizarre movies ever made, a wildly perverse and incredibly stylish one-of-a-kind deconstructionist yakuza thriller about a hitman with a fetish for smelling boiled rice… Nikkatsu may have been right in calling the film ‘incomprehensible,’ but it’s also one of the most fascinating, original, and audacious films ever made.”–TV Guide (DVD)
“If David Lynch were to concoct a gangster flick, it couldn’t possibly be stranger, more surreal, more fragmented and unhinged than Suzuki’s movie… Branded To Kill is part Scarface and part Un Chien Andalou. Who could fail to be intrigued by that?”–Film 4 (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: Branded to Kill (1967) – The Criterion Collection – Includes a clip from the film and an essay by avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn (an early Suzuki promoter who helped bring the film to the attention of Westerners)
IMDB LINK: Branded to Kill (1967)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Films of Seijun Suzuki – A wealth of selections from Paul Willeman’s 1988 anthology of pieces about Suzuki, with scattered references to Branded to Kill. An account of the legal dispute between Suzuki and Nikkatsu Studios is here.
Facebook: Branded to Kill – Facebook fan page for the movie
DVD INFO: Nearly forgotten, and never officially released on video in the West, the laserdisc rights to Branded to Kill were snapped up by the Criterion Collection in 1998 and a DVD (buy) was issued in 1999. The only extras are a short interview with director Seijun Suzuki (the same interview contained on Criterion’s Tokyo Drifter DVD) and a slideshow of John Zorn’s collection of Japanese movie memorabilia.