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the angriest critic : Branded To Kill

Monday, December 13th, 2010

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.

The film takes place in a hyper-real version of the Japanese underworld, wherein a subculture of hitmen exist, ranked according to their skill with dealing out death. Goro Hanada, the Number Three Killer, agrees to assist his friend Gihei, a once ranked assassin, now a drunk cabbie, in breaking back into the biz by riding shotgun with him on a bodyguard gig. The job is problematic from the start, being subject to multiple ambushes, one of which leads to Gihei loosing his shit, launching into a crazed attack and being killed as a result. Goro continues the job, and before its completion, the client he is tasked with guarding proves himself to be just as deadly as he himself (if not deadlier still). After the job’s completion, Goro meets Misako, a beautiful woman with a bad case of thanatophillia, who later hires him for a hit. After completing three contracts flawlessly, Goro attempts to carry out Misako’s job, only to accidentally botch it. Now stripped of his rank, marked for death by his employer and betrayed by his adulterous wife, he finds himself on the run, not to mention falling hard for the girl with a serious (not to mention depraved) death wish. Hunted by the mysterious Number One Killer, Goro is thrown into a psychological game of cat-and-mouse wherein his life, newfound love and very sanity are at stake. And that’s when things get really interesting…

Watching Branded to Kill for the first time is a downright hallucinogenic experience, akin to a maiden viewing of Fear and Loathing or Eraserhead. Imagine a film that equals the madness (not to mention the effortless cool) of the opening montage to Miike’s Dead or Alive, but sustains that intensity for ninety some odd minutes and you’ll have a decent idea of what you’re in for. Suzuki employs a frenetic editing style, ensuring a disruption of classical film structure at a time in Japanese cinematic history when such a approach was considered risky at best and career suicide at worst. This leads to a severe feeling of disorientation, and all other weapons in the director’s arsenal (camera setup, set design, animation , etc.) are employed to produce even more jarring and potently surreal results.

The cast is superb, with each performer playing at the height of his or her ability. As the star, Joe Shishido delivers the performance with the greatest range. When introduced, Shishido’s Goro comes off as the epitome of cold-blooded hitman cool, a deadly sunglass-clad antihero that would not be out of place in one of John Woo’s Hong Kong shoot ‘em ups with a sexual appetite that would do James Bond proud, albeit one that is aroused by the smell of boiling rice (don’t linger on that detail; it’ll only make your head hurt). But, as the film progresses and the psychological warfare that the Number One Killer wages grows more intense, Shishido’s acting becomes decidedly more manic leading up to the finale, wherein Goro is reduced to a raving lunatic. Mariko Ogawa’s performance as Goro’s nymphomaniac wife Mami is no less complex, and she plays the role with a bitch-in-heat intensity that is at once enticing, repugnant and yet somehow deserving of pity. Annu Mari perfectly captures the disconnected and distant nature of the death obsessed Misako, playing the role with a near-catatonic indifference. Koji Nanbara’s portrayal of the enigmatic Number One Killer parallels Goro’s earlier ultra-professionalism, but taken to an insane extreme. At one point, rather than let his prey out of his sight for even the brief moment it would take to use the restroom, Nanbara’s character nonchalantly pisses himself. His eerie calm and single-minded devotion to the hunt serves as an excellent counterpoint to Goro’s increasingly frenzied decent into madness.

There is a highly deviant streak to nearly all sexual aspects of the film, from Goro’s rice fetishism to his wife’s frenzied hyper-sexuality. Misako’s death obsession is also quite obviously sexual, in that she wants to die just as badly as she wants to fuck the abstract concept of death itself. Even the deadly antagonistic relationship between Goro and the Number One Killer takes on a vague homoerotic subtext upon closer inspection, similar to the relationship that would later be seen between C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer in Robert Harmon’s film The Hitcher. This is highlighted to blackly hilarious effect during the domestic scenes in which the two share an apartment a la The Odd Couple. Furthermore, the Number One Killer’s method of hunting is motivated by not only by the desire to unnerve in order to gain a tactical advantage, but seemingly also to maintain and reinforce his feelings of dominance and to degrade his victim, not unlike a sexual predator.

What is most astounding about Branded to Kill (and in many ways the entirety of Suzuki’s output) is the level of influence it has had on popular culture, not only in its native Japan, but abroad as well. Music, films, video games and manga have all been inspired both stylistically and structurally by the legendary gonzo masterpiece. In the world of experimental music, the aforementioned avant-garde composer and musician John Zorn was heavily influenced by Naozumi Yamamoto’s score for Branded, which is a kitschy fusion of James Bond-style spy film scores and jazzy lounge music. Zorn would make this influence most evident in the work of his minimalist crossover-thrash/free jazz project, Naked City. Jim Jarmusch considers it to be his favorite hit man film (along with Melville’s Le Samouraï) and made the film Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, in part, as a homage to it. Both films concern themselves with a highly professional assassin, operating in a murky mob-controlled underworld, botching a hit and subsequently being hunted by their former employer. Jarmusch also pays tribute to Branded To Kill by recreating both the drain pipe assassination and the failed hit caused by a butterfly, two of the most memorable sequences from Suzuki’s film. And while we are on the subject, the intentionally unrealistic butterflies from Branded certainly prefigure the similarly artificial robin in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Both films are nominally meant to be grounded in reality, yet certain elements serve to slowly and subtly erode the normalcy of the “real world”, giving way to the surreal. Indeed, Suzuki’s films are an important (perhaps even necessary) precursor to the type of films that Lynch would come to create.

The concept of a elite underworld of competing assassins, which serves as the backbone of Branded‘s plot, has been used a number of times since the film’s release, from the four gunslingers of Jordowosky’s equally demented El Topo to Kill Bill‘s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Takashi Okazaki’s manga (and accompanying anime) Afro Samurai also owe much to the film’s concept and pioneering genre-bending, as does Suda 51′s video game No More Heroes, a work that should serve as Exhibit A in the argument against those who claim the medium isn’t capable of producing art (Yes, I’m looking at your fat ass, Ebert).

But Suzuki’s influence is felt greatest, and yet most intangibly, in Asian cinema, especially in the new generation of extreme Asian film. His willingness to embrace the violent, the bizarre and the comedic, all in equal measure, flying in the face of taboo and the establishment, is certainly echoed spiritually in the films of directors like Miike and Tsukamoto. These modern purveyors of gonzo cinema may not have gotten their shot to ply their collective craft had the road not been paved by one Seijun Suzuki.

Though it took decades for Branded to Kill to gain the respect and acclaim it so rightly deserved, today it is regarded by many as one of the most original and important films in the history of both underground cinema and the whole of transgressive art. Suzuki, in his uncompromising desire to realize his unique vision, took a bullet for the rest of the film world when he released Branded to Kill, opening up the possibilities of what film could do (or get away with, depending on how you look at it). But historical significance aside,Branded to Kill still stands up today as a wildly entertaining exercise in action cinema. For all his artistic leanings, Suzuki never forgot that his primary objective is to entertain, and the film does not fail to deliver all the action and suspense one would expect from a gangster flick, not to mention all riotous and bizarre comedy one would not. That being said, while not nearly as confusing and nonsensical as Suzuki’s bosses at Nikkatsu believed it to be, Branded to Kill does not obey normal structural or narrative conventions and is one of the more challenging films in the director’s body of work. Like a Lynch film, it isn’t meant to be understood so much as it is to be experienced. Approach it with a bit of patience, and you will be rewarded with one of the most unique and enjoyable films ever you’ve ever seen.

- Adam Rosina

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