Criterion Cuts: “Branded to Kill”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie, delayed due to holiday/end of year business, is the companion piece to the last Criterion Cuts I did on 2011 on Tokyo Drifter. The films are unrelated, but this followed that one in the director’s career and I’ll be making fairly regular reference to much of the stuff talked about in that piece, so it might be worthwhile to read that one first. Like that one, this comes from my own small Blu-Ray collection.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Hot off the heels of Tokyo Drifter‘s technicolor excesses, the people in charge of the Nikkatsu Company slashed director Seijun Suzuki’s budget and offered him up what can only be described as the most generic of scripts in hopes of finally getting something ‘normal’ out of him. Suzuki, dissatisfied with the script, decided to do rewrites on his own and with the collaboration of the cast, and what results in one of the strangest, most absurd tributes and critiques of intrigue cinema I’ve ever seen.

Branded to Kill is the story of Goro Hanada (played by a grotesquely jowly Joe Shishido), the third-ranked hitman in Japan. It involves a mission he’s sent on by a yakuza boss shortly after his honeymoon to escort a mysterious stranger, and it also details various missions he undertakes, and it’s also about his meeting a mysterious femme fatale, and it’s also about the cutthroat world of the top ranked hit men, the battle for the top spot and the mysteries surrounding No. 1. Writing it out sounds like madness, a mishmash of stories that don’t necessarily go together, but … well, that’s kind of what Branded to Kill is.

The disjointed storytelling that was present in Tokyo Drifter becomes full on impressionist fragmentation now, as the movie leaps from one story to the other in a way that has more in common with jazz than it does storytelling. There’s a freedom to play here that seems part magic trick and part relaxed riff, scenes unfolding at their own pace with only the characters and the things we know linking them up. There is little in the way of through line, instead we’re presented with scenes that are almost tableaux, separate and beautiful in and of themselves more than they are representative of a larger narrative.

And it’s a beautiful movie, to be sure. Filmed in black and white, edited down to only what is completely necessary to keep the audience aware of where people are, the film plays like a collage from a much longer movie and is all the better for it. Scenes cut rapidly and wildly, characters are staged in poses that just beg for screencaps and gifs, and scenes descend into outright visual surrealism. There is Misako’s apartment, the walls littered with pinned butterflies that exist in one scene but not the next. There’s Goro’s moment of doubt, tormented by animations that block off sections of the screen that he seems to cringe from, intrusions of the alien into the apparently normalcy of the world. The visual trickery here is on par with any movie, inventive and full of its own wild momentum, stylish almost to the point of distraction, exception distraction is clearly the point.

This extends to the few action scenes, too. Shootouts happen in quick cuts, the sound of a gunshot stitching a before and after scene together. Goro’s assassinations are colorful and ambitious, from a sniper shot out of the mouth of a billboard model (obviously taken from From Russia With Love) to a basement shot up the drainpipe of a sink that Jim Jarmusch lifted shot for shot for the also-excellent hitman deconstruction Ghost Dog, this is a movie that is worth watching more for the cinematic verve on display than the story.

Though to be clear, there is a story here. Goro Hanada has a beautiful wife he seems only able to relate to through the frequent, violent sex they seem to delight in. On her account, the moment he’s gone she’s sleeping with his boss, maybe betraying him or maybe simply just not caring. His one fixation is the smell of boiling rice, which he obsesses over in a way that subtly calls out the kind of affectations of Bond’s martinis and the ilk as the ridiculous coding for fetishization that they are. He meets a mysterious woman named Misako who wishes for death and who he falls hopelessly in love with. He ends up taking some jobs that end up connected to a diamond smuggling ring she’s tied up in, and a single botched shot marks them both for death from the Number One assassin.

Written out like that, it’s actually a whole lot of story going on, but it unspools with a free-spirited sense that very little of it really matters all that much to the characters or to us. Which is thematically appropriate, I suppose. Shootouts are brief, confusing, violent affairs. Goro’s liasons with his wife are in ridiculous montage. But it’s his encounter with Misako is the cause of most of the best stuff in the movie. Before her, Goro seems generally okay with his lifestyle, carefree and disaffected in a cool-before-all sort of way. But all it takes is one strange woman with a wish to die and he falls apart, falling for her instead of offering her the death she craves, two people who couldn’t be more poisonous for each other. It’s a level of obsession rarely seen on film, and much of the middle portion reminded me most not of crime movies, but of Dali and Buñuel’s surrealist Un Chien Andalou.

It’s that spiraling desire for destruction that finally forms much of the thematic backbone of the second half of the movie. Goro can’t give Misako what she wants, so she flees. Goro, despondent, wants to die right up until the point where his life is genuinely threatened for the first time and then he falls to pieces. Near the end it becomes this contest between him and No. 1 over who can man up and face the risk of death most, as both men end up in a spiral of anti-cool, their eventual mutual destruction eating away at them far more than their lifetime of casual killing ever would.

As much as I enjoyed Tokyo Drifter‘s fun, send-up take of this kind of movie, I feel Branded to Kill has, in it’s own sideways way, much more to say. It strives to point out the ridiculousness of this men, so normally portrayed as heroes in movies throughout the history of film, from Suzuki’s own Tokyo Drifter to classic noir to the James Bond type womanizing killer to crime drama-action stars in movies all across the globe today. It’s that universal character type that gives this movie relevance, that makes its message as unique as its images, startlingly fresh over four decades later.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “Branded to Kill”

  1. I agree that Branded to Kill was much more interesting than Tokyo Drifter, even though I liked it very much. My favorite thing about this one is the ending. It comes out of nowhere and it’s sad, yet it fits in perfectly with the whole parody aspect.

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