Crime Scene #5: ‘Branded to Kill’ and Tokyo Teardowns

Branded to Kill Essay - 1967 Seijun Suzuki Movie Film

Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Branded to Kill essay contains spoilers. Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 film features Jô Shishido, Mariko Ogawa and Annu Mari. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.

All of the feature films in this column have some kind of realist aesthetic basis, even as they take on heightened genre stories: the physicality of location and setting is central to Pickup on South Street, Collateral, Bob le Flambeur and Amsterdamned. These films are largely respectful of their real-life geographic space (even when reconstructed miles away in a studio). Characters actively have to travel from A to B, and the filmmakers dutifully depict the locations in which they dwell — realist relations between character and place are key to each film.

Seijun Suzuki’’s Branded to Kill — now restored in 4K and playing at Cinema Rediscovered in the UK — obeys no such laws with respect to geography, time or space. The film is mostly set in Tokyo, but such details are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. An early scene has the protagonist Hanada (Joe Shishido) arriving at Haneda Airport; one other named location also places Branded to Kill in Tokyo (though perhaps there are more references that are slipped past beyond the subtitles). Regardless, it’s a largely studio-bound film, with much of the action taking place in a few small rooms. Outdoor locations are used only for action set-pieces, sites of death and chaos for the hitman protagonist. This is partly due to Suzuki’s maverick and post-modern filming style, but it is also because of Branded to Kill’s low-budget origins.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘Run Rabbit Run’

Branded to Kill Essay - 1967 Seijun Suzuki Movie Film

Studio Nikkatsu was reinstituted in 1954, having been shut down after WWII. Japan’s oldest film studio was primarily known for mass-produced genre pictures, thrashing out two films a week. Suzuki, a contract director within that system, was primarily tasked with the B-scripts, though he bristled against the strictures placed on him (as outlined in Tony Rayns’ 2011 Criterion essay). The factory-line speed of Nikkatsu productions meant that between Suzuki’s first film as director (Victory is Mine in 1956) to his last for Nikkatsu (Branded to Kill just 10 years later), he notched 40 directorial credits. 

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘To Leslie’

Branded to Kill — a supposedly straight-forward Yakuza hitman film turned into a post-modern pop art psychosexual adventure — was hated by the studio, and Suzuki was fired. The director’s decision to sue the studio in return was ultimately successful but also meant he struggled to find favor in any of Japan’s other studios, all wary of a maverick artist who refused to toe the line. Suzuki’s next feature film, A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness, took until 1977 to arrive. This heady friction between studio expectations, generic material and the director’s radical approach to filmmaking is precisely what makes Branded to Kill such a captivating slice of noir 50-plus years down the line.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Know the Cast: ‘Detour’

Branded to Kill’s plot — or what can be discerned of it — involves Hanada, the No. 3 killer in the Yakuza, taking on a series of jobs on his return to Japan and having repeated sex with his wife, Mariko (Mami Ogawa), though he needs the smell of boiling rice to get aroused. After one job, Hanada meets Misako (Annu Mari), a femme fatale with a penchant for dead butterflies and a taxidermied canary hanging from her rearview window. She gives him an impossible job, which Hanada botches, and which sets him on the path to becoming a lone target against the entire Yakuza and the mysterious No. 1 killer (Koji Nanbara).

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Television: ‘Hijack’

Branded to Kill Essay - 1967 Seijun Suzuki Movie Film

And yet, all that plot is delivered at dizzying speed, with exposition thrown thoroughly out the window. Suzuki is not interested in the who-what-when of a crime thriller. He’s not even interested in the who-what-when of individual scenes. None of the plentiful shoot-outs that dot Branded to Kill have any real relationship to space and time. Spatial distance and chronology barely seem to exist. Instead, each shoot-out is experienced in fragments, a rat-a-tat slew of images, as Suzuki often searches for extreme compositions wherever he can. One key showdown on a breakwater by the seaside sees the filmmaker continually place objects in the extreme foreground (such as a hand holding a gun) with movement shown in the background, exacerbating the sense of distance and extremity of the shot. Frequently, Suzuki will cut between tight insert shots with wide shots — mid shots are simply irrelevant to him. This approach creates an off-beat back-and-forth effect, like a car jerking right and left in tight corners.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Know the Cast: ‘Drive My Car’

The small handful of Branded to Kill’s outdoor locations are anonymous, or perhaps “anonymized” would be a better word. A stately country home, coastal dunes dotted by disused military bunkers, an empty boxing ring — these are interesting locations. Suzuki, however, makes them completely nondescript and ghostlike. There are no crowds anywhere to be seen in the metropolis community.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘We Have a Ghost’

Branded to Kill Essay - 1967 Seijun Suzuki Movie Film

This anonymity is partly a result of Branded to Kill’s budget, but it plays into the hallucinatory and surrealist tones. Some readings argue that most of the film is one bad trip on Hanada’s part. Though such interpretations bore the ever-living daylights out of me, there’s something to be said for the discombobulating and anxiety-inducing effect of watching the film. The constant distancing effect of being unable to parse geographical location or cause-and-effect — combined with the fragmentary, elliptical nature of the editing and the images — makes Branded to Kill like a hugely vivid dream from which viewers can only remember partial details. The film’s relationship to these locations is purely visual. As places where characters interact, themes develop or plots resolve, they are utterly nonexistent.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘Black Mirror’

Suzuki’s interiors follow the same logic. The sets are often shrouded in monotone darkness in the background, with spotlighting highlighting the characters’ faces, whether that’s Shishido’s iconic chipmunk cheeks, Mari’s icy beauty or Ogawa’s furious lustful stares. None of these actors exist beyond archetypes in Branded to Kill, but it’s once again the distorted extremity of Suzuki’s shot composition that gives their personas greater impact.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Television: ‘Black Mirror’

Branded to Kill Essay - 1967 Seijun Suzuki Movie Film

The interiors are, however, less anonymized than the exteriors. Most famous is Misako’s butterfly-covered apartment, a creepy strange place in which Hanada seems to lose his entire sense of self (though to be fair, he spends much of Branded to Kill losing his sense of self). But if one looks beyond the abundance of dead butterflies, it’s notable how bare the apartment is of other decorations, furniture or objects. It’s more of a mausoleum than an apartment (befitting of Misako’s obsession with death).

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘Mayans M.C.’

But the butterfly apartment doesn’t exist in isolation within Branded to Kill’s psychosexual headspace. Significant stretches of the plot take place in two other abodes: Hanada and Mami’s flat is a mix of modernist and traditional Japanese styles, all sharp lines and panels, which provides Suzuki plentiful opportunities for clever blocking so as not to offend censors during the characters’ rampant lovemaking. In addition, the third location is the grotty hovel in which Hanada and the No. 1 Killer shack up in together, a shabby, low-grade place which seems to close in on Shishido’s protagonist. These three places all represent different parts of Hanada’s psychological journey in Branded to Kill  — sex and violence color each place, with violence becoming more and more prevalent as the film goes on.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘The Mother’

Branded to Kill Essay - 1967 Seijun Suzuki Movie Film

Much of Hanada’s drive as a hitman is about becoming the fabled No. 1 killer in Japan. As the No. 3 killer, he’s keenly aware of both his superb ability and his emasculated position — close to the top but not quite there — in something of the sort of corporate parody that has since played out in a multitude of hitman films since then. These places, generic and claustrophobic, become sites of ever-increasing paranoia for Hanada. The trope of the contract killer perpetually waiting for his own comeuppance is often deployed as a metaphor for guilt; in Branded to Kill, it becomes more of an anxiety-induced nightmare created by the killer’s own ego and sense of emasculation, a perpetual feeling that he’s not quite good enough and not quite big enough to become top dog; a metaphor for corporate careerism and bootlicking, perfectly matching with Suzuki’s studio-baiting attitude.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Know the Cast: ‘Nightmare Alley’

Discordant, broken, berserk: Branded to Kill refuses all direct relations with geography in its depiction of a career hitman on the verge of losing control. It’s a breathless satire on crime cinema, filmmaking and contemporary Japanese work culture, and it’s unrelentingly beautiful to look at to boot. Branded to Kill’s crime scene may not exist in any real physical space, but it hits the bullseye.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

Branded to Kill Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Television: ‘Mayans M.C.’