Despite his firm entrenchment in Nikkatsu’s studio system and his rapid output of primarily low-budget B movies, Seijun Suzuki’s films were not moneymakers and his producers abruptly fired him in a now-legendary story. After the wildly garish Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki was warned against turning out more bizarre pics, though he enjoyed his position as a B-movie director for that very reason—producers kept a less watchful eye on the lower budget films. However, his response to the warning was Branded to Kill, a singularly stylish and incomprehensible action flick. He was promptly fired and he then sued in retaliation, eventually winning a small amount, but at the cost of being blacklisted from the industry for the next decade.
Oddly enough, Branded to Kill is a film that mirrors its creator in his remaining days at Nikkatsu and his eventual fate. Hanada is our protagonist, the number 3 ranked hitman in Japan, who accepts a job from a terribly strange girl with a fascination for butterflies and suicide. In a cruel twist of fate, a butterfly lands on Hanada’s barrel just before he fires, and he accidently kills a civilian. Since he breaks a core tenet of the hitman code, he has to face his punishment. Basically, he’s a dead man. And while he attempts to dodge his pursuers and search for the mysterious number 1 hitman, Hanada stylishly makes his way through excessive sex, creative hits and stunning gunfights.
Whether Hanada—a man experienced in his craft, whose fate is sealed by one uncontrollable mistake— is a stand-in for Suzuki, is a matter completely open to interpretation. Nevertheless, it provides a way of looking at the film that marks the sixth collaboration between Suzuki and his cheek-enhanced lead Jo Shishido, whose Hanada is steeped in sex and violence (again, like Suzuki’s films) and finds strange ways of approaching them. This film is filled with odd fetishes that include Hanada’s fixation on the smell of cooking rice, his wife’s penchant for walking about the house nude, and the morbid femme fatale Misako’s obsession with hanging dead butterflies as house decorations. Branded to Kill is a movie about eccentricities and excesses and Suzuki crafts it accordingly.
Viewers will be most impressed by the film’s retention of a cool vibe more than forty years later. Suzuki finds inspiration from anything between Bond films and pop-art as he continually tries efficient or creative ways to go about a scene. Branded offers a mix of different action styles, sometimes fast and exciting, as men catch on fire or fall from roofs while Hanada darts about or sometimes clever and amusing, especially when Hanada must perform an early set of assassinations. Later, the action even turns into tense stand-offs that resemble sniper battles, as Suzuki pits his fighters in dark, yet light-speckled room that becomes a beautifully appropriate maze and trap for the characters—one wrong move into a stream of light means the end of their lives.
While the finer (or let’s face it, broader) details of the plot may require a second viewing or a written synopsis to understand, Branded to Kill easily gets by on its sheer audacity, the winning charm of its leads and its stylish, unconventional approach to filmmaking—which includes the arbitrary choice to depict a character’s emotions in one scene by crudely animating butterflies, birds and rain over the shot. But as bizarre as Suzuki’s aesthetic is, it’s impossible to imagine the film any other way.
Reviewed by Tarun