Tag Archives: Joe Shishido

CAPSULE: MURDER UNINCORPORATED [DAI NIPPON KOROSHI-YA-DEN] (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Haruyasu Nogushi

FEATURING: , Kon Ômura, Hiroshi Hijikata, Bontarô Taira

PLOT: A cartel of crime bosses, their lives threatened by the infamous Joe of Spades, hires a collective of assassins of dubious skill to protect them and to root out their enemy.

Still from Murder Unicorporated (1965)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even by slapstick standards, the collection of oddballs assembled here is pretty strange, and a subplot involving the only character in the film playing it straight adds a surprising layer of seriousness to a story that is almost entirely absurd. But the overall goal is sustained silliness, rather than true head-scratching weirdness, and the final product wouldn’t be out of place alongside more recent genre-twisting comedies featuring Adam Sandler or his cohorts.

COMMENTS: Viewers know what they’re getting from Murder Unincorporated in the first 20 seconds: a man looks directly at us and warns us that if we do not laugh, he will shoot us. So we have ourselves a comedy, albeit one with the perpetual threat of violence. For whatever else this film tries to accomplish, this much is an unqualified success.

In a city so rife with illegal activity that the top crime bosses divide their efforts by specific illicit enterprises, even crime bosses must turn to the titular corporation when their lives are threatened by a vengeful assassin. The response is a motley collection of aspiring hired guns, including a lovesick poet bearing a volume of Heinrich Heine verse, a baseball fanatic who refuses to work while the Yomiuri Giants are playing, a chef who is terrified to slice fish, and even a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking dwarf who professes to be the grandson of Al Capone. But first and foremost is a wannabe Jerry Lewis armed with an abacus, who is escaping an apprenticeship where his boss yanks hairs out of his head. In short, they’re all incompetent and certifiably crazy.

And yet the absurdity can hardly be blamed entirely on these goofballs. The whole town is quite insane. A rival gang hires its own killers to take out the rented assassins, including a pair of brothers who dress like the protagonists of “Spy vs. Spy” and a chiseled European identified only as “006…007’s boss.” Even the killings themselves are aggressively wacky: when one of the crime bosses is gunned down, he and his bodyguards roll around like acrobats before finally expiring. With determined madness, undercranked chase scenes, and a relentlessly sunny disposition, Murder Unincorporated plays like a -helmed episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”

All this absurdity is punctuated by the constant presence of guns. They can be found everywhere—embedded in a briefcase, a baseball bat, a book of poetry—and are used for every purpose, from dialing telephones to changing TV channels. It’s tempting to view the film as a satirical commentary on violence, but given the way they are so integral to the movie’s brand of comedy, it’s far more appropriate to think of guns as an updated version of vaudevillian cream pies, thrown in a flurry and landing where they may.

There is one exception to all of this nonsense. Early on, the Jerry Lewis-analogue meets up with a chill motorcyclist who quickly establishes himself as the only normal person in the film. Even a viewer unfamiliar with leading man Joe Shishido will be completely unspoiled by the revelation that this is Joe of Spades. He will slowly unveil his true identity and abilities, even as the gang of peculiar assassins obliviously pursues him.

Shishido seems flown in from another movie, and in a way, he is. Murder Unincorporated is a product of the Nikkatsu studio, which exploited its onscreen talent by showcasing it in films where directors and writers were given a freer reign to push genre boundaries. (The film is showcased Arrow Films’ “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” DVD/Blu-Ray set alongside two of the studio’s other films, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Paws, that are offbeat or unusual in their own way, although not reaching the heights of zaniness seen here.) In this case, the studio seems to have tried to leaven the craziness with the cool violence of a proven star who just happened to be under contract. It doesn’t not work, but the two styles never fully gel.

After the final showdown, the movie pulls out one more trick and goes all meta on us; someone observes, “The police are coming for the first time in this movie.” It’s a funny line, and the film as a whole is fairly amusing; when you throw so many jokes at the screen, a decent number are bound to land. But after a while, the frantic reach for laughs is equal parts entertaining and exhausting. There’s not much like Murder Unincorporated, which turns out to be kind of a relief.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a completely insane black comedy with a ridiculous body count that plays like a drug-addled mash up of The Assassination Bureau, Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine… More like a string of bizarre comedy sketches than a normal narrative… but it’s a fascinating and very entertaining comedy if you’re in the right frame of mind.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD box set)

63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)

“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)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

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.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)