Friday, June 20, 2014

The 1967 Blogathon: Branded to Kill

Joe Shishido in Branded to Kill

This is my first entry in the 1967 Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema. Pay them a visit over the weekend and check out all the other writing by fine bloggers across the net.

By 1967, director Seijun Suzuki had had enough of formulaic Yakuza films. These were the kinds of assignments that his home studio, Nikkatsu, kept feeding him. He was a good soldier, turning out what the studio wanted in films like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards or Underworld Beauty. Indeed, some of Suzuki's Yakuza films were some of the best films of their types. Suzuki, speaking years afterward, is without guile when he says that he continued making these films because they provided him a living, but he chafed at the restrictions of genre. his films between 1964 and 1967 became increasingly ambitious and daring stylistic experiments as he pushed against the limits of what he could get away with and still deliver what the studio required. When allowed out of the genre, he produced personal almost-masterpieces in Gate of Flesh, The Story of a Prostitute, and Fighting Elegy.

His restless experimentation began to creep into the Yakuza films, too. Tattooed Life, Youth of the Beast, and, especially, Tokyo Drifter show a director who had more to offer than Nikkatsu was interested in using. The living end of Suzuki's growth in the 1960s was 1967's Branded To Kill, which is one of the masterpieces of the Japanese New Wave. Nikkatsu, famously, didn't see it that way. They fired Suzuki for making, "incomprehensible movies," a designation for which Suzuki sued them for defamation. The damage was done, though. Suzuki's career as one of the lions of the Japanese New Wave was effectively over. It would be ten years before he made another feature film before finally reviving his career with his arty and challenging Taisho trilogy in the 1980s. What a waste.

Branded to Kill follows the exploits of Harada, the Yakuza's number three assassin, who is having an existential crisis. He's been brought to Tokyo on a job that brings him into conflict with the number two assassin, who he kills and immolates. A mysterious woman named Mitsuko then presents him with an impossible assignment. He flubs the job, but falls for the client, a woman who seems to have a death wish. Flubbing the job costs him his ranking and marks him for death. The assassins who gun for him include his own faithless wife and the mysterious Number One. In order to draw him into the open, his bosses kidnap Mitsuko and make a film showing how they are torturing her. They tell him to meet at a pier of their choosing where he'll be killed. They've underestimated him, though and he kills every one of his enemies except for Number One, who has been watching and waiting to see how things turn out. Number One, who is polite and admiring, engages Harada in a test of wills in which the aim is to exhaust Harada before delivering the coup de grace.

Really, none of this matters. This isn't a movie about plot. The plot is the same kind of stock genre drivel on which Suzuki had been laboring for a decade. It's a plot that's been repurposed a dozen times since Suzuki's film came out, whether in The Wachowski's Assassins or Johnnie To's Fulltime Killer. What does matter is the way Suzuki films it. This is the kind of film that Godard was groping for throughout the 1960s, in which most of what is on the screen is completely arbitrary, including an utter disregard for the "rules" of narrative filmmaking. "There is no film grammar," Suzuki has said. There are only shots and cuts. Which isn't to say that Suzuki's film is slapdash. In spite of Nikkatsu's disdain for the film, there's a firm command of formal composition in Branded to Kill. It's just not conventional composition.

For one thing, the film is beautifully shot and composed from frame to frame, though it's not naturalistic by any means. The film image is an austere black and white hyper-noir of a sort that anticipates Sin City by forty years, all the way down to the inclusion of graphical symbols burned into the film stock itself rather than appointed in the mise en scene. It's a very theatrical presentation. Even more striking is the way Suzuki ignores the conventions of film editing that create the illusion of coherent spaces. This is a film where the cuts are almost arbitrary. They fracture the narrative, amplify the theatricality of the film, and create a kind of breathless sureallity. It's almost film editing as free jazz, an association suggested by the film's soundtrack. In 100 Years of Japanese Film, Donald Ritchie describes the aesthetics of Japanese filmmaking as "presentational," in which the way art or craft is "presented" to the audience is a worthy end unto itself, regardless of whether the art is sushi, swordsmanship, or dumb yakuza movies. That aesthetic certainly describes Suzuki and Branded to Kill in particular.

Branded to Kill

Beyond the how of the film, what occupies the frame is often as abstracted as the formal qualities of the film as film. The settings of the film, whether a Tokyo strangely abandoned to the duels of its Yakuza hitmen or the empty boxing arena where Harada and Number One have their final encounter, create a kind of existential dreamscape. Some of the film's on-screen symbols defy easy deconstruction: The film's persistent images of butterflies, for instance: it's a butterfly landing on the gun that causes Harada to botch his assignment, but soon the screen is a riot of them. They mean, what? A talisman of failure? An avatar of transformation as Harada ascends to his fate? Hell if I know. The film has a psychosexual element, too, deriving from its emphasis on naked bodies. Harada's sexual behavior, whether the aphrodisiac effect the scent of boiled rice has on him or the various encounters he has with women, is suggestive of derangement. This is reinforced by the strange appearance of lead actor Joe Shishido, who had cheek implants surgically placed into his face to make his countenance more fierce, as befits a leading man. From my point of view and most everyone else who writes about the film, it makes him look vaguely like a chipmunk. This all has a cumulative effect and by the time Harada's duel with Number One commences, the film has completely slipped the leash of conventional narrative.

Suzuki himself is completely deadpan when it comes to discussing the film. He claims creativity for the sake of entertainment and nothing more. He refuses to decode any part of the film. And Branded to Kill IS entertaining no matter what the short-sighted suits at Nikkatsu may have thought. You can't take your eyes off of it. Time has been kind to Suzuki.

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Silver Screenings said...

This film sounds utterly enthralling, and I love how you wrote the review. I am completely unfamiliar with this director and his work – something which I must remedy.

Thanks for choosing "Branded to Kill" for the blogathon!

John/24Frames said...

I have long been tempted to pick up this film whenever I am in a Barnes and Noble store, but have always held back. I am familiar with some of the works of Mashiro Shinoda, Nagisa Oshima and Kurosawa but not this director. I will be certain to pick this one up. Thanks for an interesting review.

Caftan Woman said...

The film sounds fascinating and Yuzuki's cheeky attitude in interviews appeals to me.

Clayton @ Phantom Empires said...

You've hit on another fave! VERY stylish stuff, and just as cool...and one would hope for.

I'll have to sit with this one again; my Yakuza collection has got a bit of dust on it! :)


Rosie (The Rosebud Cinema) said...

This sounds like a stunning film, I haven't heard of it so I'll be sure to check it out now! Very interesting piece, I'm glad to have been made aware of this film - it looks wonderful! Thanks for participating!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Thanks, everyone! I love this film, as you can probably tell. This is a film I sought out on bootleg VHS back in the 1990s (along with Suzuki's equally bonkers Tokyo Drifter), so it's gratified to see Suzuki in the Criterion Collection.


Watchin only some Kurosawa's and one Mizoguchi, I can say my knowledge of Japanese cinema is poor. But you gave me a great tipe. It certainly looks like a beautifully shot film!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Random Pictures // Amy J said...

Your post makes me want to watch this film again - thanks!