Cinema noir is widely admired for visual stylization that was at least in part a response to low budgets. One of the last true noirs was the 1967 black-and-white “Branded to Kill” (Koroshi no rakuin), directed by Suzuki Seijun and starring the chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido as the third-best hitman in Japan. Over the course of the very disjointed movie, the ones rated second and fourth are killed, and Goro (Shishido) has a lengthy duel (I hesitate to say of wits, but mostly not of bullets) with Number One.
Goro misses a sniper shot, because, he says a butterfly landed on his rifle. Having shot up a drainpipe (a scene borrowed by Jim Jarmusch in “Ghost Dog”), I find this a peculiar excuse and don’t claim to understand why the failure is a capital offense. Goro loses his rating and is the target of several waves of assassins (in a pretty amazing action sequence on a long pier) before Hitman Number One (Nanbara Kôji) starts toying with him.
Why the cold-blooded killer falls in love with the femme fatale, Misako (Mari Annu), who disclaims any interest in or feelings for men is also mystifying. The challenge? A death wish? Well, she is not as childish as Goro’s wife is, and, it turns, less dangerous to Goro than his greedy, kinky wife (Ogaw Mariko a) whom he calls “Mami.” And, arguably, Misako has more of a death wish than Goro does. (I did not see any indication that Misako she has feelings for women, either. Or children; I took her for a zombie. When first seen, picking up Goro after his car has broken down, she is driving a convertible with the tope down through pouring rain and is totally drenched.)
Misako has a butterfly fetish, Goro something close to a fetish for the smell of rice cooking. She eventually tells him that his recent hits are all tied into the diversion of smuggle diamonds, which matters not one bit to him or to the unfolding of surrealistic elements.
There are a few extended shots, but the number of (jump) cuts must rival the number in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (from the next year). Those in “Branded” are more dizzying, because they are often between shots from odd angles or heights. (Shots from high or low and oblique ones are all hallmarks of the international noir look.)
Though there are no scifi futuristic elements in “Branded to Kill”, Joe Suicide’s Gore with his roughness and odd romanticism reminded me of Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution in Godard’s 1965 “Alphaville” (a film I especially love). The odd humor and elaborate action set pieces foreshadow Johnnie To more than Jim Jarmusch (except for “Ghost Dog”). Other fulsome admirers include Quentin Tarrantino (unsurprisingly) and Wong Kar-Wai (more surprisingly, though I can see Shishido as a forerunner of Tony Leung characters in Wong movies).
The head of the Nikkatsu Studio, Kyûsaku Hori, was outraged by the extremely odd movie that Suzuki delivered (Suzuki’s 42nd for the studio, all low-budget assignments, in this case replacing another director at the start of shooting), snarled that Suzuki’s movie “neither make sense nor make money.” Like the firing of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque in Paris, Suzuki’s firing became a cause célèbre for student rebels as well as for Japanese film-makers (not employed at Nikkatsu) and film-lovers. Suzuki sued for breach of contract and accepted a settlement before the studio turned from gangster movies to porn.
Suzuki relates his firing in a 1997 interview that is included on the Criterion DVD and that the studio foisted star and script on him. Suzuki made something out of nothing, though a something that doesn’t make much sense. (Hori was half right; it eventually made money when he was forced to allow is to be screened.) Suzuki also reports that the editing was done in a day. This may account for some of the arbitrariness, though just splicing together so many pieces of film seems like quite a day’s work to me. Continuity was of no concern either in the filming or in the editing.
The Criterion image is probably as good as what was shown in 1967. I’m pretty sure the graininess was in the original.
I wish that there was a commentary from Tony Rayns (if not feature-length, at least one for some key scenes, as in the Criterion early Imamura movies, Pigs, Pimps, and Prostitutes). In addition to the 1997 Suzuki interview, all there is is an amusing gallery of poster art of Joe Shishido movies.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray