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In the words of the bosses at Nikkatsu who chose to fire Seijun Suzuki immediately after this film was released in cinemas, Branded to Kill is ‘incomprehensible’. The same bosses then went on to add that they were stopping Suzuki’s monthly salary with immediate effect because his films never made any sense or any money and that he should probably give up being a film director because no one else was going to hire him. To be frank, it was their loss. ‘Incomprehensible’ is certainly one way to describe the film - it’s almost fair though the plot and shooting style feel more straightforward than his previous film, the psychedelic yakuza movie Tokyo Drifter. Like Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill is the story of a tough guy killer but this time around our ‘hero’ turns out to be much less self-aware.
Hanada (Joe Shishido) is one of the top hit men operating in the Tokyo underworld (though perhaps not the best). His latest assignment is to escort someone across town, assisted by his alcoholic hit man friend. However, they’re ambushed and his friend is killed, though the client reaches his destination safely. On the way home, Hanada’s car breaks down but a pretty girl, Misako, stops to give him a lift. Completely besotted, Hanada returns home to play odd sex games with his wife all over the house whilst sucking in the smell of boiling rice from the rice cooker to put himself in the mood. Becoming more and more obsessed with Misako, he agrees to take on an impossible hit which goes wrong after a butterfly lands on his sights. Accordingly, Hanada then loses his status as one of the top guys and begins to become increasingly insistent on claiming the number one slot for himself.
As you can see, the suits at Nikkatsu may have had a point. Essentially, Branded to Kill takes a fairly standard B-movie gangland plot where multiple guys duke it out for the top spot, but it adds in multiple layers of quirky humour and surreality that were definitely not part of Suzuki’s brief. The first section of the film shows you Hanada’s tough and resourceful nature as he takes down the ambushers and completes his original mission in a cool headed fashion. His subsequent assignments have him showing a little more flair, whether perfectly timing his shot to fire through the opening of a giant cigarette lighter on billboard, escaping via hot air balloon, or in the famous sequence in which he assassinates an optician by firing through the drainage pipes which lead to his sink. Unfortunately though, Hanada made a serious miscalculation when he accepted Misako’s job offer - as his friend told him in the beginning, booze and women will get you killed. Stripped of his status and now a wanted man, Hanada’s fragile grip on his identity begins to crumble, leaving him at the mercy of his own desires.
Misako herself is obsessed with death. She tells Hanada on their first meeting that her dream is to die and shows him the dead black canary she has hanging from her rear view mirror. Her house is filled with taxidermy, birds and black butterflies and it’s hard not to see her as a kind of death goddess, luring Hanada from his certain path of simple but precise killing to one of neurotic questioning. Hanada’s relationship with his wife, Mami, also appears quite strange as in he seems not to care very much about her. He uses her for sex (whilst ordering her to cook him up a fresh batch of rice which, it seems, is what he really wants) but then seems faintly annoyed that she exists and barely seems to care when he telephones his boss but it’s Mami that answers the phone. She appears fairly devoted to him, though intolerant of his fetish for the smell of cooking rice, and is hurt by his lack of attentiveness. During the course of the film, both women will try to kill him and both will suffer directly or indirectly at his hands. Even the strangely homoerotic relationship he develops with the mythical No. 1 is fuelled by death - what is it, really, that Hanada has been looking for?
Speaking of strange relationships, as part of this set Arrow Films have also provided the 1973 ‘Pink film’ remake of Branded to Kill, Trapped in Lust. Following Suzuki’s departure, Nikkatsu was taken over by new management who moved more into the realms of explicit sex and violence in the hope of recapturing an audience that was deserting the cinema for TV. Known as the ‘Roman Porno’ line, Nikkatsu continued to pour out a series of explicit sex films, some of which were more ‘arty’ than others. Trapped in Lust is only loosely based on Branded to Kill but its protagonist is a more of a would-be hit man who blows his chances by breaking the rules but still desperately wants to be taken seriously. Though it lacks Suzuki’s directorial flare, it makes up for it with sheer weirdness. How often can you say the villain turns out to be a ventriloquist and doll in which you’re never quite sure which one is actually in control? These sorts of films have lots of rules about what can and can’t be shown, including the prohibition on visible pubic hair which might explain the marker pen like scribble at one point where, presumably, the actress’ towel fell down unexpectedly. Pure wish fulfilment, Trapped in Lust has a slightly more upbeat ending (for the protagonist at least) and is worth seeing for its total bizarreness alone but is perhaps more interesting than actually enjoyable.
After being fired by Nikkatsu, Suzuki entered a lengthy tribunal process (which he eventually won) and didn’t make another film for ten years. Strange, surreal and other-worldly from its more straightforward beginnings to its boxing ring showdown, Branded to Kill is one of the most perfectly constructed, but totally insane, B-movie extravaganzas ever created. ‘Incomprehensible’? No. Well, a little bit - but only in the best possible way. Like all of Seijun Suzuki’s movies, Branded to Kill defies description or explanation and must be seen to be believed. A genre-bending classic, Branded to Kill is a true must see and perfect example of late Sixties weird cinema.