The textbook example of a film misunderstood in its own time, upon releasing Branded to kill the legendary Japanese director Seijun Suzuki was fired by Nikkatsu Studios because the film didn’t make any money and made even less sense. Nikkatsu even went to the length of refusing to release it, a decision that saw court action and Suzuki ejected from the film-making community for a decade. Now in 2014, it’s getting a splendid print from one of the most renowned boutique Blu-ray labels in the world, a veritable treat for the films substantial cult following.
Style, editing and basic plotting are all tools in the anarchic play box of director Suzuki, as such providing a synopsis is both redundant and undercutting how singularly eccentric his films are. Nonetheless an attempt shall be made. Hitman no.3, Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) blunders his latest job, putting him into conflict with his wife, a mysterious woman eager for death and the Phantom-like Number One (Kôji Nanbara). A synopsis is intended to give the reader an entry point into the film, as previously hinted at this is a superbly unconventional film, drawing parallels with Godard’s incomprehensible and rebellious 1960s output, Week End, in particular.
Take editing as the first signifier of this peculiarity; typically the editor’s job is to communicate the flow of the storytelling in a way that compliments the director and cinematographer’s work. Suzuki and Editor Mutsuo Tanji takes that note and scrap it; with the action scenes they remove any extraneous footage. For example a mysterious assailant is spotted in the distance and the ally of our protagonist walks to greet him before duking it out, what would normally be a 2/3 minute sequence becomes a mere 30 seconds with the two addressing other before cutting to the inevitable scrap. The first time this can only be greeted with confusion, after watching the film a little more and the cinematic language affirms itself it becomes a slyly charismatic trait. Editing can only be creative to a certain degree when (crudely speaking) cutting from shot 1 to shot 2, hence this hasty presentation becomes liberatingly unique and not too dissimilar from the scattered logic of a fever-dream. A fate consolidated by a flamboyant Jazz score.
Like the French, the Japanese New Wave was the personification of “cool cinema “, Branded to Kill’s role in this is an interesting one. With his instantly identifiable cheeks, Joe Shishido cuts an iconic image on the screen; aside from his bizarre fetish (for smelling freshly cooked rice) he has the nonchalance that only the cool command. A role that transforms 180 when the number one hitman is introduced, gone are his slick threads, quips and sunglasses and in their stead arrives a man who plays with balloons and hides from the harbinger of doom with blind cowardice. For one of the starlight’s of Japanese cool to be deconstructed so soundly sees the wildcard director having fun at the expense of both form and narrative.
Cool, flamboyant, weird and irrefutably hard to follow, Branded to Kill is a one-off that is hard to forget in a hurry. The success of its peculiarity is tricky to ascertain. If the surreal spectrum is within the walls of your wheelhouse then Arrow Films latest stopover in Japan is something that demands to be experienced. While not actively shooing the less adventurous away from it, Branded to kill is best suited as the second act, following an initial primer into the wilder side of Japanese cinema. As chances are you will have experienced nothing like it before.
Following on from 2014’s earlier Japanese release, Blind Woman’s Curse, this too is afforded a great release. The habitually stellar artwork is continued here with the butterfly design of his harbinger of doom’s home artfully meshed with the pop-art sensibility oozing out of the films very design. Interviews are a typical extra of Arrow’s release and they have an impressive double whammy with the director and star having a sit down chat. The crowning achievement on a pedestal equal with the supplementary booklet penned by Jasper Sharp and the artwork by Ian MacEwan is a film, Trapped in Lust (1973) described as “a delirious roman porno re-imagining of Branded to Kill from Atsushi Yamatoya”. No expense has been spared in giving this lurid masterpiece the best possibly arrival on the UK home market.