When I last discussed Seijun Suzuki in my post on Tokyo Drifter, I touched on the fact that the director had become bored with the meager, stereotypical offerings from Nikkatsu Studios, as he found their scripts to be lacking in ideas and vision. The legendary director had been churning out comedies, pop musicals, dramas, war films, and action flicks at a rate of 3 to 4 a year since 1956 when he left Shochiku Studios for the supposed greener pastures of Nikkatsu. The end result was a feeling of stagnation, frustrated that his directorial voice was being muted or, in the worst case scenario, not being recognized by the heads of the studio as they believed him to be a B-movie specialist, nothing more. After seeing 39 films to completion, Suzuki, fed up with the restraints imposed on him and his art, would release his magnum opus on the world, a film that Japan, and most important his studio, would not be at all prepared for, resulting in the auteur’s firing and 10-year exile, which would ultimately turn him into a counterculture icon.
Branded to Kill is a film that is wildly eccentric, a cinematic effort that could only have been directed by Suzuki himself. Much like Tokyo Drifter, the story is conventional and straightforward, even if the execution isn’t. The (nontraditional) narrative follows Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), the third-ranked Japanese underworld hitman, an abnormal, secretive man riddled with peculiarities. In between the execution of his masterful hits and audacious escapes he enjoys the aroma of cooking rice; so much in fact that it acts as a powerful aphrodisiac, used it to arouse him for ferocious rounds of lovemaking with his faithless girlfriend Mami (Mariko Ogawa), assuming of course that the notion of beating her brains silly doesn’t take him first. Goro’s vacillating lifestyle goes further down the tubes when he bungles an unmanageable hit provided to him by Misako (Annu Mari), a mysterious woman he meets one night after his car breaks down on his ride home. Goro’s hubris in taking on an impossible contract results in demotion from his number 3 ranking in the hitman universe and, worse yet, causes him to become the target of the underbelly’s mystical top-ranked assassin, No. 1 (Koji Nambara). The setup leads to the final segment of the film, in which Goro becomes nothing more than a plaything for No. 1. As Goro’s metal state is broken down slowly by No. 1’s psychopathic mind games, he finally snaps, which leads to a metaphorical showdown in a boxing ring, ending the film in a stylized duel that must be seen to be believed.
While the story seems simple enough, only a renegade director such as Suzuki could tell it in this fashion, one that left the studio heads baffled at first, then furious once the initial shock of what they watched had worn off. Branded to Kill had somehow managed to break almost all the filmmaking conventions present at that time, taking the style employed in Tokyo Drifter and ramping it up to a level where the film would, for the most part, only appeal to cineastes. Still jarring even by today’s standards, Suzuki’s masterful piece of cinema jettisons any attempt at a normal narrative structure as exposition and explanation of character is omitted in favor for a game of genre deconstruction so intense in its abstraction that the film’s only counterpart (that I can think of) is Jean-Luc Goddard’s Made in U.S.A. The director regularly cuts away from his narrative thrust to, what appears to be, extemporaneous subject matter, resulting in shots that are disconnected from the film—and by extension, film reality as most know it to be—that begin and end abruptly without explanation, which can leave the viewer disoriented. Action scenes are shot in a fashion that discards the time-honored tradition of an establishing shot, turning Goro’s imaginative kills into mini-cartoons shot through the prism of a fever dream. Sexuality, and by extension nudity, is ramped up as well, certainly pushing the censorship envelope in Japan and obliterating the American Production Code standards at the time, making us look like total prudes and outdated by half. Goro’s girlfriend prances around nude in most of her scenes, even the ones in which it becomes obvious that sex is the furthest thing from the twisted hitman’s mind, and when sex does show up it always involves a healthy dose of hip-thrusting, which was not allowed in Japanese cinema at that time. All of these stylistic flourishes, these visual shenanigans—Suzuki on steroids if you will—add incredible amounts of intensity to every frame as even the most seasoned of moviegoers hasn’t a clue as to what the director has in store for them next.
The film was unsuccessful upon its release, confusing audiences just as much as it did the high-ranking studio heads, and would be pulled from distribution by the president of Nikkatsu himself, Hori Kyusaku, after its initial, contractual play dates had been fulfilled. By ignoring the “play it straight” warning he received after directing Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki had run out of goodwill, entering an exile that would take 10 years to emerge from. Efforts to overturn his blacklisting proved futile for long periods of time as his lawsuit against the studio, which claimed breach of contract and wrongful dismissal among other charges, didn’t yield results until 1971. Despite winning his suit, an act that shook the Japanese film industry and turned the director into a legend, he wouldn’t direct another feature until 1977 when he released A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness; instead, he had to live on the salaries collected from directing commercial and television work.
It wouldn’t be until 1980 that Branded to Kill assumed its rightful place among cinema classics and cult cannons. In that year, Suzuki saw a swell of good fortune as retrospectives and, in some cases, film festivals dedicated to his work began to dot the cinematic landscape. By the time it was released on home video in the States, it had turned into a cult classic with high-profile directors such as Quentin Tarantino and experienced film critics and historians in the vain of Donald Richie and Tony Rayns expounding on the virtues of the film and Suzuki’s long-neglected career. Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) called it: “Probably the strangest and most perverse ‘hitman’ story in cinema.” Smitten with the flick, he paid direct homage to it in his own hitman effort, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) dispatches a mafia member by shooting up from the basement through a sink drain, just as Goro saw fit to do himself in a memorable scene 42 years prior.