Why I Love… #86: Branded To Kill

Year: 1967

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Stars: Jô Shishido (Gorô Hanada), Kôji Nanbara (No 1), Anne Mari (Misako), Mariko Ogawa (Mami Hanada), Isao Tamagawa (Michihiko Yabuhara)

Genre: Action / Crime Thriller

Released in its native Japan in 1967, Branded To Kill was a product of Nikkatsu Studios but one of a very different stripe to their usual. At the time Nikkatsu were one of the most prolific studios producing movies in Japan. Around this time – and using some fairly  sweeping generalisation – Japanese cinema largely fell into a handful of categories, the most notable and diverse being the prestige pictures which garnered global critical fanfare from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi and, at the other end of the spectrum, the light, disposable, violent and exploitative popcorn cinema of which Nikkatsu were a key purveyor.

Their output is defined by the often notable screen presence of the studio’s charismatic roster of leading men and the tightly budgeted and largely generic plots which often centred around in-fighting between yakuza gangs. This isn’t the kind of thing to usually generate warm critical reception or to be thought of with particular seriousness, and by and large all of Nikkatsu’s films were dismissed outside of Japan, at least at the time of release.

But time can be a funny thing, and some of the titles have garnered something of a cult following. Top of the stack is certainly Suzuki’s Branded To Kill, an oddity even among its sometimes curious peers.

A little on the plot of the film. It tells the story of Hanada, the number 3 assassin in Japan played superbly by then-rising-star Jô Shishido. Shishido himself looks like a comic character thanks to surgery he had performed on his cheekbones shortly before Branded To Kill was filmed in order to give him a signature look inspired by his hero Marlon Brando. It worked.

His character Hanada is hired by a sultry and secretive death-obsessed woman named Misako to take out for individuals, the last of whom makes for a seemingly impossible hit. When Hanada’s plan goes awry and he kills an innocent bystander, he finds himself outcast from the yakuza. He is stripped of his rank and finds himself on the run, playing a game of cat and mouse. His only salvation will be to discover the identity of the  mysterious and possibly mythical Number 1 killer and, if possible, take his crown.

Branded To Kill is one of the most beautifully shot films of its era. It’s monochrome photography has the look and feel of black and white comic book panels flicking past the viewer’s eyes. This is exemplified in the way the movie is cut – something you’re sure to notice on first approach. Some of the editing choices here and downright experimental. Branded To Kill makes abrupt time and location jumps in the same way a comic book would. Don’t worry though; it’s something easily grown accustomed to as the film settles into it’s groove.

In keeping with this comic book style, the film adopts a similar playfulness when it comes to action. Like most of the world, Japan was in the thrall of the increasingly popular outings of Sean Connery as James Bond. Indeed, the Bond franchise’s outing of the same year, You Only Live Twice, was a direct attempt to further court the Japanese market. You can see Bond’s influence in the methods Hanada goes to when taking out his targets – they’re outlandish and prone to similar gimmicks. This adds to the wacky comedic tone of the movie; something which has helped it to endure as a memorable export for Japan.

So there’s a Western influence to Branded To Kill, but not just an Anglo-American one. Also, I feel, a European one. This is what Suzuki was trying to capture. It might seem like a highfalutin comparison, but I think you can see a lot of the experimentalism of the French New Wave of the sixties in Suzuki’s film. This was a booming era of filmmakers producing cine literate work and that comes across here, particularly in the aforementioned editing.

The story, it’s setting and its characters are uniquely Japanese, however, and the sensibility is very much its own. Nevertheless, the sense of East meets West, or highbrow and lowbrow mingling has led to its cult status. It’s a film that doesn’t really fit in anywhere meaning that – by definition – it stands out, and it’s a film held dear by a number of today’s directors.

Quentin Tarantino is a key champion of the film, and its one he’s directly referenced, particularly in Kill Bill Vol. 1. There’s a scene here – the one which introduces Misako – which is mimicked exactly in that movie. It’s the shot of a car driving up to the top of a grassy verge. In Tarantino’s flick this is used when the Bride kicks Sophie’s mutilated body down to the hospital.

There’s also a striking similarity between actress Annu Mari who plays Misako and Chiaki Kuriyama who plays Gogo in Kill Bill. I for one don’t think that this is entirely coincidental.

Another of the film’s preoccupations is with butterflies. Misako’s apartment is literally littered with them, and the film even toys playfully with animation when Hanada is surrounded by them. Looking at Branded To Kill through a modern lens, it recalls the similar preoccupation evident in Peter Strickland’s wonderful The Duke Of Burgundy, although this is really where the correlation between the two pictures ends, especially when looking at the depth of Suzuki’s female characters.

The women sadly do tend to get short shrift in Branded To Kill, which is unfortunately something of a product of its time. Misako, initially such a strong, commanding presence, is relegated to the ‘princess in the castle’ role later on in the story, while Hanada’s wife Mami is an object of almost complete sexual titillation, craven and adulterous. Still, both actresses make hay of the material they’re given.

With its mix of sex and violence, Branded To Kill fulfilled the mandate Nikkatsu Studios was asking of Suzuki, but the director was actually fired when the finished film was handed in. The story goes that it was deemed too outlandish, and that studio president Kyusaku Hori hated the wonderful jazz score which had been composed to accompany the film. Fortunately, Hori ran a tight ship and refused to spend money on all new music, so the film was released as-is. Nevertheless, the studio viewed the film as a failure. Too arty and too strange. They were worried about who exactly the film was for and how to market it accordingly.

Suzuki responded to his firing by sueing Nikkatsu Studios for unfair dismissal, a move which didn’t endear him to the other studios with whom he might’ve made new alliances. The knock on effect being that during the 70’s Suzuki only completed one film; for Nikkatsu he made over 40.

Yet Branded To Kill endures, not least for its inventiveness and canny plot twists, the likes of which I’d love to discuss here, but am loath to spoil. Above all, Branded To Kill is a riotous entertainment piece, and its on those terms that it’s best to meet it.

One of Hanada’s bizarre and lovable traits is that he is aroused by the smell of boiling rice. I’m a recent convert to Branded To Kill thanks to an exemplary release from Arrow Video, and the film at large had something of a similar effect on me. My senses were overwhelmed by what they were experiencing. One of those all too rare moments when a film feels like it was made exactly for you. Some films are growers. Other times, it’s love at first sight. The latter is how I felt – and feel – with Branded To Kill.

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