The Filmstruck Cram — Day 3: ‘Branded to Kill’
1967’s Branded to Kill can be maddening. The film’s renegade director, Seijun Suzuki — who was fired by Nikkatsu in part because he turned in such an unruly, bizarre film — is unafraid to disorient viewers with jarring jump cuts and drastic tonal shifts. Especially during its imaginative and influential action sequences, the movie gleefully surrenders any grasp of space, as staccato editing moves various hit men and femme fatales from one place to another, often inexplicably. The result is a feverish, violent nightmare, packed with indelible images which Suzuki obviously prioritizes above comprehensibility and plot.
As for the plot, Branded to Kill is an amalgam cribbed from Yakuza, noir, and spy traditions, all of which Suzuki subverts at every turn. The film is a far more a sensory exercise than an intellectual one, and follows Goro (Jô Shishido), a killer-for-hire “ranked Number Three” (the metrics are obviously never explained) among his profession in the Japanese underworld. At first, the very definition of a smooth operator — stoic and shrouded in dark sunglasses — Goro devolves into paranoid frenzy after a hit job goes awry and makes him the target of both his own organization and the formidable “Number One” killer.
It’s all fairly straightforward in conception, except Suzuki inserts humorous wrinkles and flourishes of surrealism, exhibiting disdain for storytelling convention and genre tradition whenever possible. Goro, for instance, compulsively huffs the steam from boiling rice to supercharge his libido and his capacity for violence (which go hand in hand in the film), an odd habit that undercuts his suave façade. And half way through the film, after a botched hit, Goro too-quickly falls in love with an ethereal women who typifies a macabre femme fatalee: she repeatedly says that her greatest wish is to die (but not, apparently, before she tries to kill him). Goro’s wife also tries to kill him early in the film for reasons that are obscured — at least until they are revealed in a hysterical scene that defies easy logic.
There is a sense of nihilism at play in Branded to Kill; the film is the product of an apparently frustrated and jaded director. It is difficult to ascertain a perspective from Suzuki which isn’t characterized by a sardonic dislike of his characters and the milieu they populate. Even the film’s ostensibly tragic ending is shoehorned in with zero fanfare, as if to both needle the audience and mock the very idea of significance in the narrative. Goro is betrayed by his organization, mimicking Suzuki’s own tense relationship with his studio, but more importantly, Goro is not a particularly sympathetic hit man. In fact, “Antihero” would be a charitable categorization. He is blunt and tactless with peers, and physically abusive of his wife. When he does eventually becomes infatuated with another woman, his emotions manifest as childish and stunted.
Suzuki counters Goro’s alienating presence with a parade of images and set pieces that bleed style, asking the viewer to stand in awe of the film’s off-putting protagonist. In one sequence, the hitman snipes a target from within the animatronic cigarette lighter of a billboard, a striking scene that might be familiar from its influence upon a similar set piece in The Bourne Ultimatum. Another sequence finds him shooting a target through the plumbing in a building, firing a pistol directly up a pipe and through a sink. Suzuki’s depictions of violence are imaginative and largely bloodless, and Goro moves through the landscape of Branded to Kill leaving a stylish wake.
The strongest acolytes of Suzuki’s film, I’d imagine, derive their greatest pleasures from the craft of filmmaking on display instead of the largely dispensable story being told. The director exaggerates hitman tropes to hilarious extremes, and the plot he’s crafted in Branded to Kill is seemingly arbitrary as it unfolds, functioning only as a delivery system for the next feat of form.
The most telling image might come from a segment which borders on slapstick, when Number One and Goro arrive at a stalemate as Number One decides the best way to dispatch of his target. Sitting in the same apartment, Number One — in evidence perhaps of his consummate professionalism — proudly urinates in his own pants. Branded to Kill is in many ways one big piss take, with Goro becoming a fun-house image of a noir leading man, and the film’s byzantine plot driving to an absurdist and nihilist conclusion. It’s a curiosity that is alternately breathtaking and infuriating, and is a prime example of a film worth streaming while it is still available, as your mileage may vary.
For more Filmstruck Cram, click here.