Review: Branded to Kill (1967)

It didn’t take much research into Japanese film before Seijun Suzuki’s name came up. branded-to-kill-3Specifically, it was an anecdote about his film Branded to Kill (1967): a film so far removed from his orders to create a B-movie about a hitman, to fill out the back half of a double bill, that he was promptly fired by the studio. The movie is now regarded as an avant-garde masterpiece, and I knew that I had to see it.

Of course, I had a feeling going in that there was a risk ‘avant-garde’ might mean ‘pretentious and unwatchable’. The question: was Suzuki fired for creating a bad movie, or for creating something his studio – concerned only with mainstream action flicks – couldn’t appreciate?

Having seen the film, I feel like the answer is somewhere in between.

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A rare conventional shot from Branded to Kill

There’s a semblance of a normal movie in here somewhere. A hitman, the no. 3 ranked killer in an organisation of professional killers, takes a series of jobs that put him up against his colleagues until something goes wrong, and he becomes the target. Told that way, the plot makes sense. Branded to Kill does not make sense. Sometimes when watching a critically-acclaimed film and finding it difficult to follow, there’s a feeling you’re missing something; or just maybe you’re the only one who gets it, and it’s the critics who are in the wrong.

With Branded to Kill, the critics seem to agree the film makes no sense, but argue that fact isn’t a problem. Take composer John Zorn, who said “plot and narrative devices take a back seat to mood, music, and the sensuality of visual images.” Certainly I lost track of things between the first escort job and the set of hits issued by the femme fatale played by Annu Mari, with little idea how one story bled into the other.

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Annu Mari in one of the more striking shots from the film. The use of rain is pretty spectacular throughout.

So if the plot is incomprehensible – not helped by Suzuki eschewing conventional cuts and editing – what about the visuals? There’s some striking imagery, and not just in the way things are shot and framed. There are a couple of set pieces with protagonist Goro (Joe Shishido) that make me think Suzuki could actually make a fantastic, but far more straightforward action movie. In one scene, Goro kills a target via an ingenious use of plumbing. In another, he crawls along under a car, using it as cover against snipers.

Of course, it wouldn’t be possible to mention Shishido without asking: what the hell is going on with his cheeks? I initially wondered if he was wearing a prosthetic for the movie, but no: he had cheek augmentation surgery in 1957. Apparently he was well known for this. He was certainly recognisable for this.

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Joe Shishido (Goro, aka No. 3 Killer) and his magnificent cheeks

I’ve said before that even when a film is bad, I can get some enjoyment from seeing it as a piece of cinema history. While there are plenty of directors who cite it and Suzuki as an influence, it’s the anime Bakemonogatari that sprang to mind. The weird editing, the music, the use of chiaroscuro. I can’t know if Branded to Kill is really the inspiration, but that’s the joy of watching a film like this, and trying to work out how it influenced what came later.

So is Branded to Kill bad? It’s not a film I’d recommend lightly. Suzuki allegedly had no intention of making something this strange, he just wanted to make something enjoyable, yet the result is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. Story threads fade in and out of prominence, cuts jump through time and space, the acting is stilted and affected – perhaps deliberately, perhaps not – and the whole film takes a bizarre left turn in the final act that made me wonder if it had completely gone off the rails. It’s certainly little surprise Nikkatsu fired him. Yet I’d be hypocritical to pan it just for that, when I have a soft spot for bizarre films like, well, almost anything Takashi Miike has made. With appropriate expectations and an open mind, this is a mesmerizingly strange 91 minutes.

Branded to Kill / 殺しの烙印 (Koroshi no Rakuin)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Japanese Release Date: 15th June 1957

Version Watched: Arrow Video Blu-Ray Release, 91 min

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