The Criterion Completist – Branded to Kill (1967)
written by: Hachiro Guru
produced by: Kaneo Wa
directed by: Seijun Suzuki
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: June 15, 1967
DVD/Blu-ray release date: December 13, 2011
The story goes that when director Seijun Suzuki delivered his final cut of Branded to Kill to his bosses at Nikkatsu Studios, they promptly fired him. In an interview with Suzuki on the gorgeously designed Criterion DVD, he claims that the executives told him that his movies “make no sense, and make no money”. That might be true, but Suzuki was after something bigger, and created the most audacious, wild film of his career.
Initially similar in tone and style to the French new wave crime and Japanese “yakuza” films of the early and mid 1960s, “Branded to Kill” opens with hired assassin Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido, “Gate of Flesh”), the number 3 best killer in the country, taking a job to escort a man to another city. Goro is a strange, seemingly cold man, whose favorite way to relax is to sniff pots of boiling rice. He eventually meets up with a mysterious woman Misako (Annu Mari), who asks him to perform a complicated killing for her. After a butterfly lands on his sniper scope, he botches the job horribly, and becomes hunted by the assassin guild. Up until this point, the movie is a fast-paced action thriller, with lightning fast cuts, big edits in time and narrative, and wild camera work shooting it all from angles high, low, far and close. But once Goro and Misako shack up and go on the run, the film completely goes off the rails, and becomes a wild, feverish descent into Goro’s slowly disintegrating reality. Animated birds and butterflies swoop in to assault Goro, and as the assassins close in, his paranoia builds and his mental breakdown starts.
Sex plays a big part in “Branded to Kill”, and even though the sexual revolution was in full swing, the female characters don’t fare so well. Goro’s wife Mami Hanada (Mariko Ogawa), is portrayed as sex-obsessed, over-emotional monster, who walks around naked the entire film, and cheats on her husband with his boss. Misako is portrayed as a borderline psychopath, who tortures and taunts Goro with her sexuality, but then allows him to rape and abuse her during his breakdowns. The kinky sex scenes and abundant nudity are fairly explicit and shocking for a Japanese movie from this time period, and would seem to be one of the reasons for Suzuki’s dismissal, but nothing seems to have been edited for the final cut.
With all the visual pyrotechnics on display, “Branded“ manages to do two things: break out of the mold of the typical crime films of the period, and capture the cultural zeitgeist of the era. Obviously influenced by the Pop Art movement, the colorful psychedelic times of the late 1960s, and the cinematic trail-blazing of the French new wave filmmakers, Suzuki simply assaults the screen with relentless creativity. Things like plot and narrative and character development are simply cast aside in favor of creating the most visually arresting shots possible. In the aforementioned interview, Suzuki claims that there is “no grammar” for filmmaking, meaning that he did not feel the need to obey the rules of traditional cinema for his films. He didn’t see the need to make films that were socially conscious or relevant and instead just wanted “to make movies that are fun and entertaining”. In that regard, he certainly succeeded.
“Branded to Kill” is somewhat light on extras for a Criterion release, but includes a 1997 interview with director Seijun Suzuki, and a modern interview with actor Joe Shishido. Two essays on the film can be read on Criterion’s website, and the film is currently streaming on Hulu Plus.