Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Seijun Suzuki
viewed: 10/29/07

Here’s a film that I’ve been meaning to see for 13 years.  Nothing like finally getting around to it.

I first stumbled on Seijun Suzuki when I was living in England in 1995.  I’d gotten deeply into Hong Kong cinema in the previous years and had fairly ample access to those films in San Francisco, but in Sheffield, England of the time, they were none too prevalent.  One comic book shop that was in the city centre had both Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill available for purchase as well as Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990),  and Sonatine (1993).  Neither director had I encountered, but was titilated by other Asian gangster films and was lucky enough to find a couple of Kitano Takeshi’s films at a local video shop.  Suzuki ended up having to wait.

In film school back in San Francisco, a professor of mine, highly knowledgeable in Japanese film, laughed a lot about Suzuki’s films and showed some clips of them, so I started to get a sense of what he was all about.  I think at some point I finally rented Tokyo Drifter, but for some reason it hadn’t made the expected impression.  Yeah, I know, it’s all about me so far, right?  Well, it is a “film diary”, not a pure review-oriented site nor anything purely academic (not that I would be accused of the latter).

Branded to Kill is considered to be Suzuki’s masterpiece, his most interesting and bizarre film.  Suzuki worked for a film studio Nikkatsu, churning out what were intended to be B-movie yakuza films, handed down scripts, and simply made to bang out in formulaic style.  Now, as I have mentioned, I haven’t seen the scope of all of Suzuki’s film, but Branded to Kill is about as far from formulaic as one could imagine.  It’s referred to as “avant-garde”, “surreal”, “new wave” and all of those adjectives came to mind throughout the film.  It’s intensely nutty.

With a narrative about a top hit man who, after a botched hit, becomes the target of the #1 hit man in Japan, one might imagine a pretty straight-forward potboiler.  But the film is all over the place, with some more blatant Freudian weirdness with star Joe Shisido lusting for the smell of freshly boiled rice, a femme fatale who opens a conversation with a death wish and turns out to be obsessed with dead birds and butterflies, to a silhuoetted killing in which gun as phallus hits the female right about in that part of her body.

But beyond all that, the film cuts from thing to thing, throwing in bizarro shots and compositions, breaking off narrative in directions that don’t make a lot of sense, toying left and right with anything and everything imaginable.  It’s little wonder that the studio fired him after this film.  It’s even more amazing that they released it as it is.  I was reminded of the way that writer Jim Thompson worked for pulp fiction publishers yet took his style to Modernist heights within the genre.  This is way more out there in some ways, but in others, maybe that is not so inapt a comment.

Tons has been written about Branded to Kill and I don’t know how much more I can offer after my vieweing, but it is a totally amazing film that harkens all kinds of strange things like David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard and was clearly as avant-garde as anything that would have come out of any studio system at the time.  The film doesn’t merely subvert genre, it does about anything and everything it can with cinema.  It’s a greatly bizarre and challenging film while being totally funny and entertaining, too.  It certainly deserves its noted reputation.

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