Branded to Kill Criterion Collection DVD Review: Suzuki’s Absurd Deconstruction of Yakuza Crime Films

There has never been a crime film quite like this. Director Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill (1967), did not merely turn the genre on its ear, it practically destroys the convention. The film is famous for getting the Japanese New Wave director fired from the Nikkatsu Studios. But Branded To Kill was much more than just an outrageous gesture from a director with a chip on his shoulder. Suzuki pioneered a new storytelling device with his film by stripping away all extraneous information. It may take us a minute to catch up with the action at certain times, but this is not Suzuki’s concern. His is a deliriously fast-paced movie about the world of hit-men and double-crosses – presented as brutal comedy.

From the start we realize that the name of the game here is not so much the various hits the men perform, but where these actions will place them in the almighty rankings system. The Yakuza assassin Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is introduced as number three. This is an intolerable situation for him, and his focus throughout the film is to move up to number one. His biggest distractions in these goals are women. There is his wife, the sexually insatiable Mami (Mariko Ogawa) – and then there is the mysterious Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari), who becomes his mistress. No matter which woman he is with, Hanada must contend with an inconvenient quirk. He can only become aroused by the smell of boiling rice.

The story is revealed through a series of hits. A jewel heist has gone awry for his bosses, and those responsible must pay. There is the customs agent who double crossed them, an optometrist, a jewler, and an unidentified foreigner. These hits are the most stylized of the picture. The first finds Hanada behind an oversized cigarette lighter on a billboard. When the lighter’s top flips open, Hanada is revealed, dispatching the customs agent before it flips back down. The optometrist gets it through the plumbing, as he stands over his sink washing a glass eye. The jeweler attack is pure bravado, as Hanada bursts into the man’s office with guns blazing, killing everyone in sight.

Things go terribly wrong for Hanada when he botches the fourth, against the foreigner. This was brought to him by Misako. She tells him that she will be walking with the target, and he will have just three seconds to fire. Not only does he miss, but he kills a civilian female instead. Misako shoots the man, but he is only wounded. After this turn of events, Hanada knows that his dreams of becoming number one are over, and that he is now a marked man. And since the intended knew Misako, her days are numbered as well. There is no sympathy among Yakuza assassins. “Kill or be killed” is the film’s motto.

Hanada’s big showdown takes place in an abandoned boxing arena late at night. Number one calls him out, taunting him as a coward if he does not show up. Meanwhile Hanada has been having strange visions about his women. He has killed his wife, and his mistress has been horribly maimed in a fire. Or were these just hallucinations? It is all part of the fever-dream environment Suzuki creates in his film, and who is to say what is real?

The violence is non-stop, as is the duplicity between men and women, and especially between hitmen vying for the top spot. Suzuki was clearly commenting on the amoral landscape of post-war Japan, and he does so with tremendous wit and style. It is not at all surprising that Branded To Kill was so misunderstood upon release, for there was really no precedent for comedy as black as this. The airy pop soundtrack by Naozumi Yamamoto adds just the right note of absurdity, especially during sex – which is invariably prefaced by Hanada’s command; “Boil some rice.” The greetings between assassins are short and to the point, about the only thing they ever say to each other is “What is your ranking?”

Branded To Kill was considered so outrageous upon release that Suzuki was effectively blacklisted from Japanese cinema for a decade. As one of the supplements in this Criterion Collection edition, Siejun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu were interviewed in 2011 about the making of the film. In this 12-minute piece, both discuss the writing, casting, production, and ultimate response to Branded To Kill. There is also an interview with Suzuki from 1997, which was conducted during a retrospective of his work at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles at the time. During this 14-minute segment, he discusses his approach to filmmaking and is clearly happy to finally be recognized for his achievements. The final interview is with star Joe Shishido, which was recorded specifically for inclusion in this set in July 2011. In the 10-minute piece, Shishido reflects on his life and career, as well as his experiences filming Branded To Kill.

Branded To Kill is presented in Japanese, with English subtitles, and in black and white.

Greg Barbrick

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