Branded to Kill
Film Title: Branded to Kill
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari
Running Time: 98 min
Can it be an accident that the TV series The Prisoner and the films Point Blank, Le Samuraï and Branded to Kill all emerged, apparently independently of one another, in 1967? Or was there something in the water or the stars that allowed for outlandish, countercultural, genre-smashing art all over the planet?
Cinemascope has never looked more stylish than in the sleek monochrome of Seijun Suzuki’s surreal gangster film. Squint hard and there are similarities with those other ’67 must-sees, but open your eyes wide and it’s like nothing else in all cinema.
The honchos at Nikkatsu studio certainly thought so – they fired the director soon as they saw this wildly lyrical crime flick. He remained blacklisted for a decade and overlooked until a later generation of film-makers (notably Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, John Woo and Chan-wook Park) came to sing Suzuki’s praises.
The plot is mostly accessible if dreamily demented. Goro Hanada or No 3 Killer (played by chubby-cheeked Joe Shishido), is the third best assassin in Japan. No 3 works for the Yakuza until a stray butterfly lands on his rifle, causing him miss a target and lose rank. Having lost his wife to a crime lord, No 3 takes up with Misako (Annu Mari), a mysterious woman with a death wish: “My dream is to die,” she announces matter-of-factly.
No 3 and Misako fall in love and try to kill one another. Is Killer No 1 after Hanada? Does Killer No 1 even exist? Why is Misako’s apartment decorated in dead butterflies?
Nothing is sacred for Suzuki, who rips up the rule books, eats the pages and spitballs them back at the audience. Sex and, more precisely, James Bond-brand screen sex is mercilessly lampooned as various characters respond to weirdly conditioned stimuli: never mind the bikini girls, how about the smell of a fur coat or freshly boiled rice?
Every plot development is fantastic and anarchic and unreliable. Every shot is sublime chiaroscuro. Every sound is delightfully discombobulating.
Cult classic? Try one of the greatest films ever made.