Seijun Suzuki is Japanese cinema’s original renegade filmmaker. Since the 50’s, Suzuki has been making B-movies, mostly gangster pictures, that increased in originality and insanity as he went on, much to the chagrin of his employers and the indifference of most of the movie-going public. The Nikkatsu Company, Suzuki’s primary employer during the 50’s and 60’s, imposed heavy financial restrictions on his films in an effort to curtail the perceived incomprehensibility of his work. This only pushed him to create films more brilliantly anarchic and bizarre, but, unfortunately, just as unprofitable as his previous output. After the box office failure of Tokyo Drifter (a Yakuza epic shot in a style that emulated the Pop Art movement with elements of the musical, western and comedy genres thrown in for good measure), his budgets were slashed to such a degree that he was forced to shoot in black & white for his next two pictures. In addition, he was warned against using any of the radical techniques and themes he had previously worked into his films. Suzuki essentially took it as a dare. The studio threw him a grade-Z script for yet another Yakuza film, and demanded he rewrite it and begin filming immediately, a decision they’d later regret. The hectic schedule meant that the film was being rewritten as it was shot, the pressure pushing Suzuki to the height of his creativity. This film would come to shatter genre expectations and incorporate film noir, surrealism, absurdist humor and perverse sexuality in ways that Suzuki hadn‘t dared previously. The film that emerged was Branded to Kill, the biggest “FUCK YOU” to the studio system released up to that point (or arguably ever). It’s difficult to imagine the balls it took Suzuki, who had essentially been banished to Japan’s Poverty Row and explicitly told not to fuck around any more, to ignore his employers’ demands and to essentially deliver the cinematic equivalent of Metal Machine Music. But deliver it he did, and was promptly sacked for it.
Suzuki fought Nikkatsu in the courts for wrongful termination, not to mention the smearing of his name in the media and his blacklisting in the Japanese film industry. A great deal of support came from student film clubs, who helped to sway public opinion in Suzuki’s favor. Nikkatsu, nearly in financial ruin by this point, settled with the director (albeit for a pittance compared to what he originally demanded), but the damage to Suzuki’s career was already done. The blacklist persisted, and Suzuki would go ten years before directing another feature film. Jumping ahead to the ‘80s, North American audiences got their first taste of Branded to Kill, both through showings at film festivals and VHS (selected for release in an Asian film VHS series, entitled Dark of the Sun, by none other than Painkiller mastermind John Zorn). A entire generation of future filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino among them, would be influenced by the maverick director to create incredibly idiosyncratic, risk-taking films the likes of which the West had never before seen. Back in Asia, a similar phenomena occurred, and directors such as John Woo, Takeshi Miike and Chan-wook Park would be equally inspired to push the boundaries, both in structure and content, of what was expected of film, genre or otherwise.