Branded to Kill (1967)

Review #1,446

Director:  Seijun Suzuki
Cast:  Jô Shishido, Kôji Nanbara, Isao Tamagawa, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari
Plot:  A hitman fumbles his latest job, putting him into conflict with his treacherous wife, a mysterious woman eager for death, and a phantom-like hitman known only as Number One.

Genre:  Crime / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  91min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be M18 for sexual content, nudity and violence)
Source:  Nikkatsu

“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.”

This was the notorious film that landed Seijun Suzuki and Nikkatsu Corporation in hot soup.  Deemed too trashy by Nikkatsu to be released in theatres, the studio was brought to court for a breach of contract.  Nikkatsu had to pay damages, and later severed ties with Suzuki, which left him unable to make a feature film for nearly a decade. 

With the recent passing of the highly influential filmmaker at age 93, attention has been drawn back to his most dazzling works, including Branded to Kill, a film that the studio forced Suzuki to shoot in black-and-white, because his previous film, Tokyo Drifter (1966), was deemed to be way too colourful and indulgent. 

Such intriguing trivia helps us to appreciate this wildly-concocted yakuza thriller even more, made fifty years ago, but had since inspired such directors as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch.  It stars Jo Shishido as Goro Hanada, an assassin ranked third in the hall of fame for killers, a chart very much known to probably just those three. 

Tasked to escort an important person to a destination, Goro uncharacteristically stumbles in his job, and is forced to face the consequences, including being hunted down by a clever hitman known as Number One.  Along the way, his relationship with his wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), deteriorates—though the sex remains passionate and explicit—and he chances upon a mysterious fox-like lady who desires to die.

With copious amounts of full frontal nudity by Ogawa, and Goro’s fetish for sniffing boiled rice, Branded to Kill feels like a B-grade pinku movie with gangsters and assassins.  But Suzuki shows why he is such a shrewd and original filmmaker by deconstructing the crime genre and not conforming to the conventions of storytelling. 

Edited in a haphazard manner that stresses on its fragmentary style, Branded to Kill is also visually striking with Suzuki pushing his stylishly-shot scenarios into the realm of absurdity.  The final twenty minutes are utterly fascinating, building to a darkly comic and sharply ironic climax. 

Shishido is magnetic as an actor, portraying a character stuck in the abyss of an existential crisis.  He clamours to defeat Number One and replace him, but to what end?  Through the film, he holds our attention, even if the narrative—or any semblance of it—makes no sense.  Branded to Kill is the kind of film that Godard would have made if he was Japanese, experimenting with the possibilities of the medium, with a side of cool, rhythmic jazz. 

Verdict:  Suzuki performs dazzling genre deconstruction in this absurd if stylish existential Yakuza crime-thriller.


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