Seijun Suzuki had made a string of yakuza action movies for Nikkatsu Studios in the late 50s and early 60s. While working within what was essentially a B-movie formula he had become more and more ambitious and experimental. Tokyo Drifter in 1966 pushed the boundaries of the crime thriller genre; Branded to Kill in 1967 demolished them entirely. And it got him fired from Nikkatsu and almost ended his career.
While this is usually painted as a typical example of a visionary artist being misunderstood and persecuted by the philistine bean-counters who run movie studios in retrospect it’s possible to have some sympathy for Nikkatsu’s position. They claimed his movies weren’t making any money, and in 1967 the Japanese film industry was in desperate trouble. Television was making spectacular inroads into cinema attendances. Branded to Kill is a masterpiece by a great director, but in 1967 Nikkatsu needed box-office hits rather than masterpieces.
Iconic yakuza movie star Jo Shishido is Hanada, the number 4 yakuza killer in the country. A meeting with an old friend who is keen to get back into the gangster business leads him indirectly to a strange assignment. The people he has to kill are not the usual people who find themselves targeted by mob hitmen. And he encounters an odd but very striking woman, Misako. It’s not clear exactly who she is, or what her connections to the yakuza are. Is she a hitwoman, or a potential victim? She claims to hate men, but she and Hanada fall in love. Well, it’s love of a kind.
The assassinations carried out by Hanada are ingenious in the extreme. In one case he takes up his firing position inside a gigantic cigarette lighter on an advertising hoarding, and another involves a shooting through a drainpipe. Things start to go very wrong indeed for Hanada when Misako offers him as assignment. The hit goes wrong, foiled by a butterfly. Since an innocent passer-by is killed, Hanada has now lost his ranking on the professional killers’ hit parade (all the killers in this movie are obsessed by their rankings and by the mystery of the identity of the unknown Number 1 killer). Even worse, he is now marked down for death himself.
All this might suggest that Branded to Kill is a taut, tightly-plotted crime thriller. It’s nothing of the kind. It’s more reminiscent of surrealism than of your classic crime B-movie. Nothing is explained. No plot point is neatly resolved. It actually has a lot in common with John Boorman’s brilliant Point Blank, released the same year. And perhaps some similarities to Ken Russell’s shamefully underrated Billion Dollar Brain, another film released in that epic year of 1967 that gleefully overturns genre conventions and expectations. If I’d been to film school I’d probably describe Branded to Kill as a deconstruction of the crime genre. It has the feel of an acid dream. It also anticipates Jess Franco’s use of jazz as not merely a soundtrack but as the very structure of a movie, a technique he perfected in Venus in Furs in 1969 - movies made as jazz improvisations.
And if this suggests that we’re dealing with a very serious-minded art film, that’s partly correct, but it’s also extremely witty and a good deal of fun. There’s plenty of humour, including quite a bit of the scatological humour that crops up in many Japanese exploitation movies. There’s also an extraordinary mount of sex and nudity, given the incredibly strict Japanese censorship regime at that time.
But most of all this movie has style. It has the wonderful 1960s set design that seems to be a trademark of Seijun Suzuki’s films. His command of composition and of movement is awe-inspiring. Despite the (deliberate) absence of any kind of coherent plot you’re in no danger of becoming bored. The climax in a boxing ring is as strange and ambiguous as the rest of the film, but it’s certainly striking.
Anne Mari is wonderfully enigmatic and unconventionally sexy as Misako. Jo Shishido does the world-weary criminal at the end of his rope thing as though he’d been doing it for his whole career, which he had.
This is one of the landmark movies of the 60s. An absolute must-see.