After more than ten years and forty films at the Nikkatsu company through the 1950s and 60s, cult Japanese director Seijun Suzuki was fired – allegedly for making “incomprehensible” cinema. Known for visual panache, staccato editing and a particular dreamlike quality that eschewed narrative logic, he was hardly working against type. After repeated instruction to make his work more commercially accessible, the straw that finally broke the back of that particular production camel was the dizzying jazz noir of Branded to Kill (1967), back in cinemas this week ahead of DVD/Blu-ray. What makes the story all the more curious is that the film is, in fact, a stunning riff on gangster fare inflected with surrealism.
The plot – though the word should be used advisedly in this instance – is that of a hitman who is the third best in the Japanese underworld. Number Three, or Hanada (Jô Shisido), is given a routine assignment to bump off an unknown foreigner that goes sour and he finds himself being pursued by his erstwhile friends. They attempt to get to him through his wife and the girl he subsequently falls for, but he manages to evade their bullets, relinquishing his sanity in the process. Finally, he is challenged to take on the almost mythical Number One, leading to a dramatic confrontation in an abandoned boxing ring. The typical Yakuza thrillers of the period are the long-discarded basis of this twisted tale, Number Three archetypal in numerous ways, yet each of them undercut by a devilish contortion.
Shisido’s piercing killer’s gaze is perpetually hidden behind shades, but his almost rodent-like cheeks undermine the cool. His sexual appetite is insatiable, but is also stirred most strongly by the aroma of steamed rice. Where events and are one minute snappy and smart, the next they’re psychedelic – performances shift frantically from smooth to melodramatic in gloriously befuddling fashion. Similarly, Suzuki’s framing is always exquisite, but its staccato editing continually disorientates – never quite allowing you to know where you are in any given room. Of course, this is all intentional, though, and the film uses its visual style and the excellent hard bop score to complement the spiral further into delirium. It is easy to see why Nikkatsu found Suzuki incomprehensible, but this is the exact quality that makes his film quite so brilliant. Branded to Kill is as much of a maniacal riot now as it must have been upon original release and for that precise reason it is well worth seeking out given the slightest opportunity.