Branded To Kill

1967, Movie, NR, 91 mins

Review

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Seijun Suzuki's BRANDED TO KILL is one of the most bizarre movies ever made, a wildly perverse and incredibly stylish one-of-a-kind deconstructionist yakuza thriller about a hitman with a fetish for smelling boiled rice.

"Number Three Killer" Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido) is hired to escort mob big shot Susumu Orui (Koji Nanbara) to safety, and kills a number of assassins during the trip. Afterwards, Hanada's car breaks down and he's picked up by a mysterious beauty named Misako (Annu Mari). After having rough sex with his nymphomaniac wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa), Hanada is visited by Misako, who hires him to kill a foreigner. During the hit, a butterfly lands on the barrel of Hanada's rifle, causing him to miss the foreigner and kill an innocent bystander. Misako tells Hanada that because of his error, he will be eliminated. When Hanada goes home, Mami shoots him and sets fire to their apartment. Hanada runs outside and finds Misako waiting, and she takes him home and tends to his bullet wound. After they make love, she shoots at him and misses, but Hanada can't bring himself to kill her because he's fallen in love with her.

Hanada goes home and kills Mami, then returns to Misako's, where a projector is showing a film of her being burned and tortured for not killing Hanada. A man also appears in the film and tells Hanada that five killers will meet him at a pier the next day. Hanada goes to the pier and kills the men, but finds the legendary "Number One Killer" waiting for him, who turns out to be Susumu Orui, the big shot he had previously escorted. Orui warns Hanada that he's going to kill him, then lets him go home and begins to taunt him with threatening phone calls. After a long standoff, Orui moves into Hanada's apartment and they agree to call a temporary truce. The men handcuff themselves together; eventually, they go to a restaurant where they take off the handcuffs, and Orui escapes. He leaves a note telling Hanada to meet him at a gym later that night. Hanada goes to the gym and has a showdown with Orui in the boxing ring. They shoot each other and Orui is killed. Misako comes in on crutches and the crazed Hanada instinctively shoots her, then dies.

It's not surprising that the Nikkatsu studios fired Suzuki over BRANDED TO KILL, (which they called "incomprehensible"), since it is a truly mind-bending film that flaunts contempt for every rule of traditional storytelling and reduces to absurdism every cliche of the yakuza genre (the concepts of loyalty and honor, the existential loner hitman, the double and triple-crosses, etc.). From a conventional narrative point of view, the film is indeed confusing and incoherent, with no attempt whatsoever at physical continuity and events often unfolding out of chronological order. Yet its rush of seemingly random scenes and disparate images have the internal logic of a fever dream, and Suzuki's impressionistic cinematic style (hallucinatory widescreen compositions, disorienting editing) creates a genuinely nightmarish atmosphere suffused with mystery and beauty. The film is rife with symbolism (dead birds and butterflies, fire and water), Brechtian alienation effects (Hanada is surrounded by animated birds and rain at one point; black bars are used to censor body parts during sex scenes), farcical elements (the hilarious macho male-bonding parody when the "Number One Killer" pees in his pants and then ties himself to Hanada when the latter goes to the bathroom), and supernatural fantasy (Misako--who lives in an apartment filled with hundreds of dead butterflies pinned to the wall--is accompanied by rain wherever she goes and may, in fact, be the Angel of Death).

Suzuki spoofs the action by stripping it down to its absolute bare minimum, as in the brilliantly minimalistic sequence where Hanada carries out four impossible hits with incredible efficiency: by pointing his rifle out through the lid of lighter on a giant billboard; sticking his gun in a water pipe and shooting an optometrist in the eye when he bends over the sink to wash his face; and after killing two jewelers in their high-rise office, jumping out the window and escaping in a hot-air balloon that happens to be floating by. The bungled hit, when the butterfly flies in front of Hanada's gunsight and lands on the barrel at the last minute, is pure surrealism, as is the boxing ring finale, where the triumphant Hanada starts screaming "I am Number One," then inadvertently blows away his beloved Misako. Nikkatsu may have been right in calling the film "incomprehensible," but it's also one of the most fascinating, original, and audacious films ever made. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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