About halfway through Branded to Kill, Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 yakuza noir masterpiece, the hitman Hanada (Joe Shishido) walks through the gloomy streets of Tokyo at night, when the screen is suddenly bombarded with jagged animated images — birds, rain, butterflies — all accompanied by an equally jarring onslaught of corresponding sound effects. It’s a totally discombobulating sensory assault, a radical stylistic rupture, signifying some sort of psychological meltdown — and when it’s all over, Hanada has collapsed, and it’s daytime again.
Utter bafflement is probably the appropriate response to this aggressively singular sequence. It can be difficult to immediately process such an audacious, explosive violation of conventional film grammar, such a comprehensive disregard for how a film is expected to look and feel. But then again, anybody watching Branded to Kill should by that point already be accustomed to an overwhelming sense of stupefaction. This is, after all, a film in which pretty much nothing makes sense from first minute to last, that at times even seems to be actively hostile towards its audience — a film in which characters seem to teleport (or space seems to collapses), isolated weather phenomena are triggered inexplicably, and rooms catch fire apparently at random. Scenes don’t transition, they crash into each other. Branded to Kill doesn’t flow, it staggers — it moves like a dying man, shot through the gut, bleeding out.
Try as you might, you simply can’t break a film like this down — not as you would almost any other film, anyway. Suzuki cloaks his work in the impenetrable armour of abstraction, repelling all conventional methods of study and interpretation. That sort of opacity might be frustrating, alienating, infuriating for some. Famously, among those who found Suzuki’s disdain for comprehensibility unpalatable was his boss, Kyūsaku Hori, the president of the Nikkatsu Company, who detested Branded to Kill — and many of the other films that Suzuki had made for him — so intensely that he fired Suzuki from the studio in 1968. Suzuki would eventually win a court case against Nikkatsu for wrongful dismissal, but found himself blacklisted by all major studios, and wouldn’t make another film until 1977.
It’s fitting, I suppose, that a film so thoroughly infused with the spirit of anarchy would clinch the banishment of its creator by the leadership to whom he’d become anathema. For Suzuki, an unappreciated B-movie maestro who found the breakneck schedule of contracted studio projects to be asphyxiating, there surely couldn’t have been a more poetic way to bow out. In a body of work replete with reckless innovation, Branded to Kill is his most emphatic artistic statement — the film is a paragon of formal purity, so committed to aesthetic experimentation that all other concerns just fall away and burn to a crisp. Plot and continuity are treated as burdens, yokes from which expressive entertainment must be liberated. Suzuki whittles the film down to the bone, jettisoning everything that doesn’t serve style, including context and narrative coherence. There’s no dramatic escalation here, no backstory, no voiceover, no world-building. It’s an impressive feat of streamlining.
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With explanation and logic rendered useless, Suzuki sets about sculpting the substance of the film, starting with the action set pieces, which reveal the hierarchy of his sensibilities — he’s absurd first and brutal second. Hanada, the third-ranked hitman in the Japanese criminal underworld, is more of an elaborate prankster than a cold-blooded professional, shuffling off the seriousness of the cynical noir hero, and instead adopting the playfulness of a silent clown. His murders play out like comedic episodes, executed with a sort of cartoonish delight: he kills one man from behind a billboard, sniping through an animatronic cigarette lighter; he kills another through the plumbing, shooting up a pipe as his victim leans over the sink; and, in one of the film’s funniest scenes, he massacres a roomful of men before escaping via an advertising blimp, floating away in the background while the bodies are discovered.
These sequences, which blend matter-of-fact violence with goofy comedy, feel a lot like gags from a spoof film. And, to an extent, that’s what Branded to Kill is — it wears the shadowy shell of noir like a Halloween costume, vitiating and lampooning the tonal heaviness of the genre. Suzuki particularly relishes poking fun at the archetypal, chain-smoking, innuendo-weaving, slick operators who prowl the noir cityscapes — the hardman, the bloodhound detective, the uncatchable crook, the femme fatale. Branded to Kill establishes and then makes a mockery of its mythical hitman ranking system, with supposedly deadly individuals wiped out in ridiculous and pathetic fashion. Koh, the Number Four Killer, is killed by a bumbling drunkard who can barely shoot, while Sakura, the Number Two Killer, is easily set on fire and then shot. Suzuki’s hardmen aren’t so hard, after all.
And the legendary Number One Killer (Koji Nanbara), who you’d think would’ve earned his prestige by completing his jobs with ruthless efficiency, turns out to be quite possibly the least efficient killer imaginable, choosing to indulge in a protracted game of psychological warfare in order to wear down his prey, happy to besiege a building for days just to tenderise his meat. In noir tradition, of course, the meeting of consummate professionals at the top of their games plays out in a delicious duel of wits and artifice, of mental agility and pyrotechnic performance — think of the lacerating verbal combat between Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sidney Greenstreet in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, or the dance of death between Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
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When Hanada and Number One collide, though, Branded to Kill descends into wacky high jinks, swapping the corrosive masculinity of noir for odd couple comedy. These two men, formidable in their line of work, capable of lethal precision and great cruelty, regress to infantilism in each other’s presence, linking arms wherever they go, literally pissing their pants so that neither has the chance to slip from the other’s sight and gain an unfair advantage. There’s probably a stealthy stab here at the upper echelons of Nikkatsu — Number One mocks Hanada for his inability to sleep with his eyes open, for his lack of discipline and adequate training, asserting that in order to be the best, you have to be cold and inhuman. Passion, expressiveness, humanity — these are all weaknesses. And they’re weaknesses that Hanada can’t bring himself to surrender, just as Suzuki couldn’t bring himself to suppress his idiosyncrasies just to placate the higher-ups.
Sex, that other cornerstone of the noir genre, in which unhealthy infatuation with spectres and mirages is an everyday occurrence, presents another opportunity for a laugh. Unsurprisingly, those urges that keep Hanada from lapsing into inhumanity are nothing short of bizarre. Misako (Annu Mari), the femme fatale with whom he falls in love, is a woman with an all-consuming death drive: her dream, she says, is to die; she surrounds herself with dead things, decorating her car with dead birds and her apartment with dead butterflies; and she has about as much erotic energy in bed as a corpse. Falling in love with a dead woman — it’s Otto Preminger’s Laura taken to a ludicrous extreme.
But the film’s best running joke involves Hanada’s irrepressible fetish for the smell of boiling rice, without which he can’t seem to inflame his libido — and in one of Suzuki’s most playful compositions, Hanada’s constantly horny wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), is framed in the background emerging nude from the shower, while Hanada is framed in the foreground, eyes rolling back with pleasure as he inhales aromatic steam. Suzuki’s noir hero is a man who would literally rather make love to his rice cooker than to his woman.
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Desire, as it turns out, is the one thing on which Branded to Kill is crystal clear. Strangely enough, as the film’s stylistic accoutrements become increasingly bonkers and hallucinatory, the motivations of its characters become increasingly lucid, distilled to a state of total simplicity. The question of what each of these individuals wants isn’t exactly hard to answer: Number One wants to kill, Hanada wants to live, Misako wants to die, Mami wants to fuck. Unlike the slippery players of the classic noir game, Suzuki’s characters are mostly open books, conspicuously divested of subterfuge — uncomplicated, but way too weird to be flat or uninteresting.
On some primal level, then, Branded to Kill is actually quite easily digestible, once you dispense with any ambitions of profound analysis. Watching the film again, paying no attention to anything other than Suzuki’s boundless technical inventiveness, I couldn’t help but think of a line of dialogue from last year’s Tenet, in which writer and director Christopher Nolan advises his audience on how best to watch his film: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Nolan might undermine his own instructions by suffocating his audience with interminable technobabble and soporific logistics, but Suzuki does no such thing — and so that same advice, I think, is the key to unlocking, grappling with and enjoying Branded to Kill as the piece of alien entertainment that it strives to be. Admire the extravagance, laugh at the absurdity — just don’t ask what’s happening, or what any of it means.
Branded to Kill is available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.
Cian Tsang (@CianHHTsang) studied English Literature at UCL, and is now a writer based in London. He spends most of his time listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.