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Branded to Kill: Reductio Ad Absurdum

<i>Branded to Kill:</i> Reductio Ad Absurdum

At the author’s request, Japanese names are given here in their traditional form: surname first.

Branded to Kill has passed into legend as the movie that got Suzuki Seijun fired from Nikkatsu. It also has a rep as a delirious, absurdist deconstruction of the crime genre. That’s all more or less true, but the backstory is a little more complicated. 

Maybe we should start by sketching how Suzuki reached this point in his career, forced to leave a major company and go freelance. He was one of those directors who stumbled into filmmaking because they found they weren’t much good at anything else. His university studies (in Aomori, because he couldn’t get into any college in Tokyo) were interrupted by military call-up in 1943; as a private second class in the Imperial Navy, he was shipwrecked—twice—and saw out the end of the war as a weather forecaster. Bumming around after the surrender, he sat the Shochiku Company’s entrance exam and was hired in October 1948. He was put to work as an assistant director in the company’s Ofuna Studio.

Then, in 1954, he was part of the exodus from Shochiku to Nikkatsu. Japan’s oldest film company, Nikkatsu had been forced to close down in the wartime government’s “rationalization” of the film industry; it reopened in 1954, determined to recapture its former glory. Others who made the journey from Shochiku to Nikkatsu included Kawashima Yuzo and Imamura Shohei. They were all attracted by the promise of working for a company less hidebound and rigid than Shochiku; the relaunched Nikkatsu set out to be freer, more down-market, and less tied to the female audience. A script by Suzuki went into production at Nikkatsu within a year of his arrival, and he was allowed to start directing soon after, in 1956. He made pop musicals, comedies, action movies, and war movies, at the rate of three or four a year. By 1967, he had notched up no less than thirty-nine of them. Branded to Kill, made that year, was his fortieth film.

Suzuki found several kindred spirits among his colleagues at Nikkatsu; he bonded with fellow “B-movie hacks” director Sone Chusei and writer-critic Yamatoya Atsushi, who shared his sense of humor and his growing contempt for the banal scripts emerging from the company’s screenplay department—and the three of them formed a kind of club that they called Guryu Hachiro. The production designer Kimura Takeo later became another close ally, the cocreator of several of Suzuki’s most striking visual coups. But Suzuki grew increasingly impatient with his position. He once told me, in front of an audience, how much he resented the fact that Nikkatsu left him toiling in its B-feature ghetto while “less talented” directors like Imamura were given A-feature projects and budgets. His particular dislike of Imamura was exacerbated by Nikkatsu’s habit of programming Suzuki B movies with Imamura A movies: Kanto Wanderer with The Insect Woman, Story of a Prostitute with Intentions of Murder. Suzuki was assigned the occasional “prestige” project, such as the 1964 remake of Tamura Taijiro’s novel Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no mon), but Nikkatsu generally ignored his ambitions and treated him as a journeyman. This, and the mediocre quality of many of the scripts he was given, provoked a certain frustration and undoubtedly pushed him into “having fun” with the films he was assigned. From 1963 onward, most of his films contained elements of stylization, parody, and absurdist humor. By 1966, Nikkatsu was warning him to “play it straight.”

Branded to Kill was released as a B feature on the Nikkatsu circuit on June 15, 1967, but didn’t last long in the theaters. Nikkatsu’s president, Hori Kyusaku, hated the film, withdrew it from distribution as soon as the initial play dates were over, and ordered his production staff to stop assigning projects to Suzuki. On April 25, 1968, Hori had a secretary call Suzuki at home to inform him that his monthly salary would be stopped. Suzuki first turned for help to the Directors Guild of Japan (which immediately lodged a protest with Nikkatsu), and later sued the company for breach of contract, wrongful dismissal, and personal damages. He also received support from a student group headed by Kawakita Kazuko, later famous as the copresident of Shibata Organization, which represented Oshima Nagisa and other radical directors abroad. They wanted to organize a “Suzuki Marathon” at the Art Theater Shinjuku Bunka, by 1968 the epicenter of alternative film culture in Tokyo. But Hori refused to supply the prints, and there were noisy demonstrations outside Nikkatsu’s offices.

Legal wheels grind slowly in Japan, and Suzuki didn’t win his action until 1971. Several interesting insights into Nikkatsu’s boardroom emerged during the hearings. One was that Branded to Kill had been made at very short notice to fill a gap in Nikkatsu’s release schedule caused by the cancellation of another film. Suzuki had got together with his friends in the Guryu Hachiro group to work up a hasty screenplay and help the company out of a hole. It also became public that Hori and the Nikkatsu board had been covering up huge losses for years, and that the decision to fire Suzuki was intended to make him a scapegoat for financial failure—and to serve as a caution to other directors under Nikkatsu contract. Less than one year after the court ruling in Suzuki’s favor, Nikkatsu (by then under a new president) publicly reinvented itself as a producer of soft-core sex films. Of course, Nikkatsu wasn’t the only film company suffering losses; the entire Japanese film industry was in trouble in the late 1960s, as television won the mass audience. All of the major companies—even Shochiku—experimented with hyped-up sex and violence in their scramble to give audiences something they couldn’t get on television, but Nikkatsu was the only one that was effectively bankrupt.

In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Branded to Kill turned out to be the most “out there” film that Suzuki made at Nikkatsu. The previous year’s Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono) had already guyed the conventions of the yakuza genre with a barrage of aestheticized violence, visual gags, incongruous songs and hair dryers, and mind-warping color effects. Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin, literally “Killing’s Brand”—rakuin implies a stigma) decon­structs the crime genre so thoroughly that the film ends up resembling its near contemporary Made in U.S.A (1966), Jean-Luc Godard’s most fragmented movie. But Suzuki and his Guryu Hachiro buddies played fairer with Nikkatsu than Godard did with his producer, Georges de Beauregard: they at least provided the contours of a generic plot. 

Plots hinging on hierarchies and rankings in the underworld seem to have come to Japan from China, where several emperors and noblemen are said to have been obsessed with being or owning the “Number 1” in one subset or another. (The great Chinese director King Hu satirized the syndrome in his late film All the King’s Men, 1983.) Around the time that Guryu Hachiro came up with the idea of the Number 3 Killer in the Tokyo underworld and his neurotic obsession with climbing the ranks to the top, the Taiwanese wuxia author Gu Long was playing with very similar narrative elements in his novel Tianya, Mingyue, Dao (literally, “The Wide Horizon, the Bright Moon, the Blade”), brilliantly filmed by Chu Yuan at Shaw Brothers as The Magic Blade (1976). Like Gu, the writers of Branded to Kill toyed with the theme of existential doubt (is the very concept of a top-ranked hit man a chimera?) while relishing a series of traps, betrayals, and double bluffs that the protagonist encounters as he quests to raise his ranking. 

Suzuki was obviously happy to let the plot take care of itself. The only sustained narrative sequence in the whole film is the final cat-and-mouse game between the two hit men in the boxing stadium Etsuraku-en, and even that is spiked with hallucinations. Elsewhere, he prefers to jump-cut between narrative highlights, as if he were editing a ninety-one-minute trailer, using Yamamoto Naozumi’s amusingly smoochy score to paper over the ellipses. He cheerfully omits virtually all the exposition: no scene-setting, no explanation of who the characters are, no explication of hit man Hanada’s tactics or working methods. All such details are taken as given; Suzuki assumes that the viewer knows all this generic stuff already. 

This strategy leaves him free to pursue the visual coups and con­ceptual surprises that interest him, and, incidentally, to ridicule the aspects of the genre that bore him. It’s the “deconstructive” approach—it sometimes looks more like demolition—which makes it possible to reduce the characters to ciphers and the action to abstraction. Hence the faithless, treacherous wife, the morbid femme fatale, the once-ranked hit man with a drink problem who longs for a comeback, and the rest. The action scenes, concentrated in the first half hour, are set in a no-man’s-land of scrubby exteriors and concrete bunkers, and feature the guest appearance of what appears to be a derelict Western-style villa. Suzuki makes no attempt to construct credible fictional spaces for all the gunfire; we never know where the characters are in relation to one another or where the shots are coming from, and pretty soon we don’t care. 

The film moves further into abstraction in such scenes as Hanada’s attempted seduction of the mysterious Misako, apparently his savior, who insists that her “dream is to die” and who has a dead canary hanging from the rearview mirror of her car as a pendant. Misako’s apartment at first looks like an art installation, crammed with dead birds and butterflies, some of them flickering briefly back to life. Hanada’s sexual lunge at the woman is torrid and torturous, apparently agonizing for both parties. It ends when she shoots him. He returns after a brief sit-down outside, now to an apartment free of birds and butterflies. You could rationalize the earlier weird decor as Hanada’s hallucination, but why would you want to? 

The most famous of the film’s many set pieces are the three bizarre hits that Hanada carries out for his boss, Yabuhara: one through a mechanically animated advertising hoarding (the idea was probably nicked from From Russia with Love), one through the plumbing in an optometrist’s surgery, the third in an office with a hot-air balloon outside the window. We learn some time later that the three victims had all muscled in on a diamond-smuggling racket and thus deserved to die, but the actual hits are presented without preamble or explanation, simply as moments on a thrill ride. Jim Jarmusch was so impressed that he quoted one of them in Ghost Dog. 

The best joke of all is the deconstruction of the whey-faced Shishido Joe, Nikkatsu’s answer to the Toei Company’s Sugawara Bunta. As Hanada, this archetypal B-movie “hard man” spends most of the movie physically wounded and mentally scarred by his meaningless ambition to be Number 1. He needs to inhale the aroma of steaming rice to rouse his libido. Both of the women in his life try to kill him, and his boss sets him up as a victim. He suffers a complete break­down in the closing scenes, first under siege in his own apartment, then trapped in an odd-couple relationship with his killer, and finally reduced to a gibbering wreck in the boxing arena. No action hero was ever less heroic. An absurd man in a deliciously absurd film.

This piece was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2011.

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