Branded To Kill
Seijun Suzuki, director – Japan (1967)
"Either my films were too early or your generation came too late," states director Seijun Suzuki in a 2001 Midnight Eye interview. The truth of the matter, though, is that he was not so much ahead of his time as out of place. Starting in 1956, the World War II-veteran began an eleven-year run with the Nikkatsu studio in which he directed as many as four films per year. That pace left little time to reflect, leaving him, as he would later confess, feeling like someone going through the motions at work rather than an artist. But it also made it possible for him to experiment. Branded as a maker of sensational, throwaway pictures that went, as economically as possible, for the cinematic "kill" -- audience satisfaction and the commercial success that accompanies it -- he escaped the scrutiny that fell on those whose work was taken more seriously. "Because my films were in the B category, I had a wider range then an A director. Even if it went off a little bit, it wouldn't be too much of a problem with them. So in that sense I had a little bit of freedom. More than the A directors."
By the time he was making Branded To Kill, however, he had concluded that this "little bit of freedom" was not enough. After having already bent the yakuza (Japanese mafia) genre with which he was closely identified, he now set out to break it. And the result, predictably, was a break in his career. Informally blacklisted by the Japanese film industry, just as Orson Welles had been in Hollywood, it was a decade before he would direct another film. Whatever bitterness this experience inspired, Suzuki now regards his fate with equanimity. "The best thing for a movie is to have a lot of people come to see it when it's released. But back then my films weren't so successful."
Luckily for both Suzuki and the history of film, however, his legacy has been tended by people who felt that the "best thing for a movie" is to be artistically influential, regardless of its performance at the box office. As Steven Rose succinctly notes in a recent piece for The Guardian on the filmmaker's oeuvre, "Suzuki is a curious illustration of the equation between cult value and commercial reality. The qualities for which he is celebrated by today's postmodern cultural magpies are the very ones that cost him half his career." Although devoid of the pretensions associated with the postwar cinematic elite, Suzuki's work in Branded To Kill ranks alongside that of Micheangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and other auteurs in its stylistic radicalism.
First and foremost, this is apparent in the trajectory of the plot, which begins with the promise of the action that packs in audiences and ends, tellingly, in the darkness of an empty arena. Most of the climaxes in the film, whether involving guns or genitalia, come early in the story. And, as protagonist Hanada -- ably played by tough-guy icon Joe Shishido -- comes to suspect that he has problems no amount of killing will solve, the prospect of a neat-and-tidy conclusion recedes into the blackness that gradually dominates the screen. When it does come, however briefly, illumination often takes the form of a light so intense that it blinds.
More subtly, Branded To Kill also calls into question the formal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Although Suzuki plays by the rules often enough for us to have some sense of what is going on, he also break them in startling ways. Although the film preserves the standard practice of dividing the narrative into distinct scenes that follow each other in sequence, the shots in a scene may be presented out of chronological order or, more dramatically, in juxtaposition with shots from another place and time. The scene in which Hanada cavorts with Mami (Mariko Ogawa) in their ultra-modern apartment is a perfect example. The mysterious Miyako (Annu Mari), with whom Handa has hitched a ride home after his car breaks down, appears several times despite the fact that she is not literally present with the couple. At one point we see the following shots: Mami in the shower; Miyako in some sort of downpour, the sound bridging the two shots; Hanada bent over his rice cooker; Mami emerging from the shower, naked; a now-dry Miyako in three-quarter view, glaring; Mami proceeding up the apartment's distinctive spiral staircase; Miyako staring staring straight into the camera; and a close-up of Hanada as he finishes his unique form of aromatherapy and moves to join Mami upstairs. Even though Miyako is clearly elsewhere, the sequence is constructed to make us feel that she is a witness -- and an unhappy one -- to the preparations for Hanada and Mami's sexual encounter. Later in the film, the tables are turned, as a shot of a desperate Mami, pleading behind a glass door, inexplicably interrupts an exchange between Hanada and Miyako. In neither case do we get any explanation for this interpolation.
In the 1997 video interview included on the film's Criterion DVD release, Suzuki modestly brushes aside the idea that he meant his Nikkatsu pictures to be more than entertainment. But then, when pressed to explain his famous claim that "there is no film grammar," he makes it clear that, modesty aside, he definitely intended to play havoc with the logic of continuity editing. "In my films, spaces and places change. Let's say in one shot, there are two characters. And for the reverse shot of this one person, the person could be in a totally different place. But still the film could make sense. Plus you can cheat time with the editing. It might look funny." Suzuki reinforces this point in the Midnight Eye interview. Asked whether he had shot scenes outside of Japan for his most recent film Pistol Opera -- a partial sequel to Branded To Kill with a female protagonist -- he replied that he had no need to leave his homeland, because filming "on location" would be meaningless for his aproach. "In my films, time and place are nonsense."
Considering the strictures that working for Nikkatsu imposed on him, the way that the demand to entertain kept him in his place, it is hard not to regard Branded To Kill's excesses as a cry for liberation. The violence Suzuki does to the language of cinema, the dead-end into which Branded To Kill’s story circuitously arcs, even the absurd details like Hanada's need to inhale the aroma of boiled rice in order to harden his masculine resolve: all testify to a desire to escape the place where his work was out of place for a world where it would fit in, to debrand himself in order to reach the audience he so richly deserved. Branded To Kill makes sense, but not the common sense of conventional film. It makes its own sense. And it makes us laugh along the way, even if we end up laughing in the dark.