Branded to Kill is the stuff of legend inasmuch as director Seijun Suzuki offered up this wonderfully wacky, perverse, dynamic film and was subsequently dumped by his studio. At Nikkatsu they accused Suzuki of crafting an oeuvre that made “no sense and no money.” And if we watch it with the eyes of a rational, money-grubbing business mind, there’s a point to be made. Because this film is ridiculous on so many accounts, absurd in plot and action, starring an unlikely cult hero — a silky smooth hit man with prominent cheekbones and a hyper-sexualized penchant for steamed rice.
Its budget and yakuza genre suggest it has no right be remembered as little more than a throwaway action flick–a petty amalgamation of American film noir and James Bond. In fact, that’s probably what the bigwigs at the studio would have liked, but Suzuki worked his own bit of cinematic magic.
If we set the scene everything looks sleek but potentially uninspired. This is your typical everyday hitman movie where each gunman is deadlier than the next, trying to knock off their marks so they can move of the hit list to the coveted #1 spot. Except it’s all played off satirically. That’s important to note.
From the outset, Goro Hanado is # 3 and he is joined by a drunken, spineless cohort in protecting a client from other assassins. It’s entertaining action that maintains some sense of stylized reality. But soon enough the cutting and jumps in continuity make Branded to Kill into a full-fledged absurdist trip – simultaneously wacky and deadly. Now we’re getting into stranger territory.
Phase two follows Goro as he flaunts his tireless inventiveness as a hit man. Hiding inside a cigarette lighter advertisement and shooting his target through an adjoining water pipe for good measure. Then the femme fatale Misako slinks into his life and after a botched job, his life is in jeopardy, an unlikely adversary being his wife. She rightly characterizes them as beasts and their home life is pure chaos.
By the latter half, the film has completely careened off the rails of convention, at times functioning as a widescreen collage of glorious visuals matched with the sweet cadence of sounds and score. Chiaroscuro lighting is pulled directly from the shadowy avenues of noir streets, with the camera, often moving leisurely through modern interiors and human bodies constantly obscured by fountains of water, butterflies or whatever else.
By now we have the total dissolution of the character we have known as he begins to sink into an all-out state of sniveling paranoia. He finally meets the mysterious number 1 and far from being a tense showdown, it turns into a rather pitiful scenario. They go arm and arm to the toilet, not allowing each other out of sight as number 1 decides how to finish off his hapless foe.The final showdown comes and it’s all we could ask for. Brutal, perplexing and above all undeniably unique – accented with the brushstrokes of an utterly creative mind.
My thoughts thus far feel admittedly disjointed and almost incoherent. I feel like I’m writing chicken scratch crossed with gobbledygook, but that’s the perfect homage to Suzuki’s art. Its aesthetic is hard to comprehend in common terms. Is it a masterpiece? Is it not a masterpiece? I’m not quite sure I can give a clear conclusion. What measuring stick can we hope to use with it? And that’s hardly the point. If you want something immeasurably different–something that will shake you out of the millennial malaise, view Branded to Kill. You might not like it because those Nikkatsu fellows were right. No sense. No money. But there’s more to life, now isn’t there?