Branded to Kill May 29, 2018
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
Seijun Suzuki’s 40th film for the Nikkatsu Company, 1967’s Branded to Kill, was at one time a final straw. The convention-shoving filmmaker, today lauded for pushing absurdist, sometimes-avant-garde aesthetic values on mainstream audiences, was something of a wild-card director for hire during his time with the film production studio. After getting hired by the company in 1956 at the age of 33, Suzuki churned out about three and a half films per year, usually assembly-line moneymakers he had little interest in. Most in his position might be willing to continue making the most of these orthodoxies, slipping in their idiosyncrasies here and there but never outrightly indulging them. A job’s a job, and when you’re working for a studio as lucrative as Nikkatsu, why test things? But Suzuki, by nature a maverick who could only stand the rigidities of the status quo for so long, eventually began feeling comfortable enough to rebel.
Around 1963, Suzuki began gratifying his personal tastes. That year’s Youth of the Beast, a Joe Shishido-starring yakuza feature, was a project Suzuki considered his “first original film,” prominently featuring a hyper-kinetic visual style and incoherency as a stylistic element, which would soon become trademarks for the director.
But while Youth of the Beast caught the attention of open-minded cinema cognoscenti, it failed to make much of an impression on mainstream critics and audiences. It also made Nikkatsu, who once thought of Suzuki as one of its most dependable filmmakers, nervous. This was solidified in 1965 when Suzuki directed the boundary-pushing Tattooed Life, which prompted Nikkatsu to issue a warning. Test traditions further and there would be consequences.
Suzuki didn’t listen, and that resulted in lowered budgets and fewer resources. Then, after making Branded to Kill, a cockamamie, slightly deranged comedy thriller disguised as a yakuza film, in 1967, the corporation stopped giving Suzuki second chances. He was prematurely fired for making movies that made “no sense and no money.” (Which led Suzuki, with the help of fervent student groups and filmmakers, to successfully sue the corporation in 1968.) Suzuki’s career never quite recovered after the Branded to Kill debacle; it wouldn’t be until 1977 that he’d make a movie again. But even by 1967, Suzuki’s legacy as a pioneering surrealist had been cemented — and Branded to Kill was what he had been building toward during his time as a Nikkatsu guinea pig.
Today, the film, whose cockeyed sense of humor and pulpy stylistics are its primary appeals, is looked at both as a high point in the yakuza genre and for Nikkatsu in general. It also influenced the styles of the filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Park Chan-wook. Considering its marked nonsensicality and its outré sense of humor, it makes sense that it has become more a cult fixture than a bona fide classic: Branded to Kill is the sort of film you either revel in or despise because of its unwillingness to be anything other than scattered. I happened to take a liking to its anomic dynamics. But like boxed wine or Farrah Fawcett-less Charlie’s Angels (1976-’81), this product is not something guaranteed to be relished by everyone.
It increasingly scrambles the more it wears on. In the film, the Nikkatsu bigwig Joe Shishido plays an assassin named Gondo who progressively loses his mind after one of his gigs leads him to a nihilistic femme fatale who steals his heart (Annu Mari, who says things like, “I hate men. My dream is to die.”) and a hitman known as the Number One Killer (Koji Nanbara) who may or may not be out to off him.
Perhaps that’s the most succinct way to describe Branded to Kill: For the most part, it’s a drunken, anarchic version of the screwball comedy that features some of the staples of film noir and James Bond features. It’s distinctive, but it’s also so batshit in everything it does that there comes a point where we come to the conclusion that nothing about it makes sense — and bothering to decipher it is futile. But making sense of Branded to Kill isn't necessary. Aside from its being so visually bewitching and innovatively written and directed that *experiencing it* is good enough, one of its aims, I suppose, is to get inside the mind of its central hero, who was never quite “with it” anyway. Practicality wouldn’t suit it in the first place.
Some reviewers have additionaly noticed the parallels between Gondo’s dilemma and Suzuki’s frustrations with Nikkatsu. And if you look at it that way, the film does arguably come together more digestibly. It has been argued that Gondo is a stand-in for Suzuki: worn down by his low-level position within his profession of choice; steadily driven mad by the number of outside individuals who seem poised to undermine his confidence in his craft. View Branded to Kill through that lens and its incoherent babblings suddenly don’t seem so erratic. Meaningful or not, though, Branded to Kill is delightful — a charismatic, eccentric statement whose turbulence is so passionately conceived that it’s becoming. Suzuki would never get the opportunity to make anything better. But when you make something as splendid as Branded to Kill, would that have been possible? A-