Heading East: Branded to Kill (1967)
Filmmaker Seijun Suzuki passed away on February 13, 2017. In this new entry for Heading East, it was only fitting that I covered one of his best known works, Branded to Kill. This was my first time watching the film in years and I still remember the mark it left, it being an introduction to yakuza films for me. My fondness of Suzuki’s piece has remained intact. Even if it wasn't my favourite, it was a nice entry point into one of the most fascinating careers of that time period. Branded to Kill proves itself as one of the finest examples of the gangster film, a staple for all of yakuza films in general.
In Branded to Kill, we have the story of Goro Hanada, a hitman who has an odd fetish with boiling rice. On his latest job, he ends up making a critical mistake that makes him a target. As he's being chased by another assassin known as Number One, he runs into a mysterious woman who has a penchant for deceased butterflies and birds. As we watch Goro on the run, we see Suzuki’s mastery behind the camera at its most exciting.
It's easy to tell apart a Suzuki film from anything else when you see his approach in contrast to many other Japanese New Wave films. For starters, his films resemble B-movies. They still tell stories that maintain an incredibly playful nature that also feel so inviting for any viewer. With Branded to Kill we have the elements to make a solid B-movie but what’s most admirable about an effort like this is it utilizes his campy aesthetic in order to liven things up. At only 98 minutes, Branded to Kill is a breeze, but it’s always engaging.
Branded to Kill is a perfect display for Suzuki’s versatility as a filmmaker. His films go all over the place when it comes to the aesthetics applied, whether it’s a B-movie, drama, or film-noir. Branded to Kill is a twisted blend of styles, the work of a unique experimenter. Suzuki’s meshing of styles creates something that is as absurd as any of his other well-known films, and this is to a point. For a film that is meant to be part of the Japanese New Wave, Branded to Kill almost plays like a parody of a typical film from the period, with glorious results.
Branded to Kill can also be seen as a psychological case study. This is a work that is filled with fetishes from both its male and female lead. Suzuki finds meaning when pairing the baffling together — we have our protagonist and his fetish for steaming rice and there’s our lead female and her dead butterflies. There’s an interesting way of looking into how these fetishes add more to the cat-and-mouse game we are watching between our protagonist and those who want to see him dead. He’s a steaming bowl of rice, but with a butterfly above him; maybe the characters themselves are the fetishes falling into traps of their own.
Branded to Kill may perhaps be Suzuki finding himself at his most complete. It’s hard enough trying to pick a favourite, knowing already the versatility on display throughout his career, but nothing has ever been able to top Branded to Kill. In its blend of gangster, B-movie, film-noir, and parody, it feels a step ahead of most films to come out at that time period. You certainly won’t get another yakuza film that blends comedy, surrealism, noir, and just about whatever more you can ask for that's better than Branded to Kill.