Required Viewing: Branded to Kill
When it comes to a country laying claim on film genres, America typically gets credit for the gangster category. Our obsession with the hitman for hire goes back to the bounty hunters of classic Westerns and carries on up through the work of Scorsese, Tarantino, and beyond. In the 30’s and 40’s, entire studios were carried on the back of the gangster genre. With all due credit to Hollywood for establishing a successful formula, they haven’t exactly been the ones to test its limits. That honor goes almost exclusively to foreign directors, and in this case Seijun Suzuki, director of 1967’s masterpiece of the hitman drama, Branded to Kill. It’s a film so brilliant that, after submitting it to the studio, Suzuki was blacklisted for ten years.
Branded to Kill features Japanese superstar Joe Shishido as Hanada, Japan’s number 3 ranked contract killer. His greatest weakness is not drugs or alcohol like one might see in an American gangster film, but the smell of boiling white rice. He obsesses over it, demanding rice at a bar as his wife orders a double Johnny Walker Black, and several shots in the film are dedicated to showing him lovingly cradling a rice cooker. If there’s a reason for this particular addiction, the audience is never let in on it. It’s arguably the primary character trait of the central protagonist, and it seems to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. This is typical of Seijun Suzuki’s extremely free-form work. We’re given the outer shell of a familiar gangster film, the customary point A and point B, but the path between those points feels entirely improvised.
At the start of the film, Hanada is persuaded to help out a former hitman who’s been stripped of his rank by lending his credibility to a simple escort job. It’s successful, despite interference by the number 2 killer, who is quickly disposed of by Hanada. This is followed by a sequence of quick executions that further emphasize Hanada’s skill, including one that was a clear inspiration for one of my all-time favorite films, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. But as one job leads to another, he eventually falls victim to a one in a million case of bad luck. Hired to take out a target with an extremely small window of opportunity, Hanada misfires when a butterfly lands on the barrel of his rifle, killing an innocent bystander. The rules in this case are clear: despite Hanada’s high rank, an accidental murder carries a death sentence.
It’s an interesting enough setup, but where Branded to Kill really shines is in the final third of the film, which is one extended standoff between Hanada and the legendary number 1 killer. It’s simultaneously tense and comedic, playing Hanada’s gradual mental breakdown against a set of circumstances that are as logical as they are improbable. It is in my opinion one of the greatest showdowns in film history, for its inventiveness as well as how seriously it is approached by the actors involved. Events that seem ridiculous after the credits have rolled seem perfectly reasonable as they’re taking place, and it’s only through the dedication of Suzuki and his actors that they work at all. This final battle just adds to a series of scenes that haven’t really made sense upon close examination, but nevertheless flow effortlessly into one another. It’s like the filmmaking equivalent of jazz…stop too long to ask yourself why you like it, and everything starts to fall apart. Give yourself up to the ride, though, and you’re in for something special.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, Branded to Kill is not only a great film, it’s a film that was too great for its time. Made for Nikkatsu, a studio known primarily for its excellent gangster movies and for being one of the most notable foreign contributors to the Film Noir genre, Branded to Kill was deemed unfit for release and was quickly shelved upon completion. Suzuki successfully sued Nikkatsu to get the film released, but the fallout of that lawsuit meant that he had difficulty getting work for the next decade. Unfortunately, he never really seemed to recover after this incident. His work in the late 70’s onward was pretty mediocre compared to earlier efforts, exemplified by 2001’s Pistol Opera, which was just a weak and unsuccessful reworking of Branded to Kill. This shouldn’t diminish his career throughout the 60’s though, which included other such gens as Tokyo Drifter and Gate of Flesh. If you’re at all a fan of gangster film and stories concerning hitmen or assassins in general, you definitely owe it to yourself to check out the work of Seijun Suzuki for a fresh take on the familiar, and Branded to Kill is an excellent place to start. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray via the Criterion Collection, and it’s also available to watch streaming with a Hulu Plus subscription.
Posted on December 3, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged Branded to Kill, Criterion Collection, Gangster, Hitman, Hulu Plus, Joe Shishido, Nikkatsu, Number 3 Killer, Seijun Suzuki, Tokyo Drifter. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.