Seijunuary: Branded to Kill

With the Gene Siskel center hosting a traveling road show of films by Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, I figured this would be a good month to recap some of his most striking films.

And ‘striking’ is the right word.  Suzuki has an incredible eye, and while his movies generally are skin-deep, he photographs that skin with a loving, sometimes lascivious, and always perceptive visual flair, which allows to to arrest the viewer’s attention whether it’s in moments of rest and silence or the loudly punctuated bursts of over-the-top violence.  This has been a bad year for makers of visually arresting cinema, with Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond both leaving the party; Suzuki, at 92, surely won’t be around much longer, and with him will depart a mind that’s hugely responsible for the busting, dynamic visuals of the second wave of Japanese action filmmakers.

Often controversial but surprisingly prolific, Suzuki put lots of personal sentiment in his films, but it’s not often clear where, when, or even why.  Branded to Kill is suffused with his personal touches, which accounts for both its brilliance and its failure; it’s notoriously the movie that got him blacklisted by his longtime employer, the Nikkatsu studio, for making films that “make no money and no sense”. It’s a charge that’s pretty hard to dispute, even as you soak in its tawdry majesty:  the plot is pretty thin at best, all style and very little substance; try to keep track of the story in it, as with most of Suzuki’s work, and you’ll end up not only bewildered but having missed at least two or three amazing shots.

This isn’t entirely Suzuki’s fault, of course.  He lusted after making movies the way his protagonist, played by chipmunk-cheeked tough guy Joe Shishido, lusts after the smell of boiling rice, and he was a do-anything director who was often called in to repair a project after it had already gone off the rails thanks to bad directing or editing, a thorny story, a major recasting, or some other production difficulty.  Then again, while he was no auteur, he did bring in incredibly idiosyncratic filmmaking choices that were hard for critics or the public to make heads or tails of.  That bit where the hard-as-nails freelance assassin can only get it up when he smells boiling rice?  All Suzuki.  The way the movie’s mysterious vamp lives in a flat festooned with dried butterfly cadavers?  That’s Suzuki too. The hitman and his tormenter strolling arm-in-arm to a public toilet because they don’t trust each other enough to leave each others’ sight?  The solution to an age-old plot problem, courtesy Seijun Suzuki.

Then again, everything that makes the movie worth seeing today is Suzuki, too, from its haunting crime-jazz score (by Suzuki’s handpicked collaborator Naozumi Yamamoto) to its stunning cinematography (lensed by Kazue Nagatsuka, but every shot overseen by Suzuki).  There are so many memorable visuals in the film it’s hard to remember them all, and they make clear why Suzuki is such a legend amongst filmmakers like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino:  there’s Shishido suddenly attacked by a sniper, barely seen from the roof of a distant high-rise; the killing of a crooked optometrist through the pipe of his office sink (a gimmick borrowed 30 years later by Jim Jarmusch, another Suzuki fan, in Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai); the elaborate dance of repulsion and desire between the cynical Shishido and his exasperated wife; Shishido’s mad finalé in a boxing ring; and a creepy sweeping pan across a tenement filled with crying babies, with a sinister assassin barely visible for just a moment in the window of one apartment.

Branded to Kill tells the story of Goro Hanada, a top-ranking assassin in the Japanese underworld, who receives a series of difficult and dangerous assignments.  Assigned a partner who was himself once a highly ranked killer who burned out and descended into alcoholism and incompetence, Goro at first reacts with scorn.  But after accepting a job from Misako, a death-obsessed young woman, he botches the assassination and kills an innocent civilian; this leads to him being ostracized from the criminal fraternity and targeted for death by the country’s number one hitman.  (Who compiles these rankings, anyway?  Does the Japanese organized crime industry have a BCS system?)  This leads to an extended psychological showdown, as Number One attempts to drive Goro mad before killing him — in a sequence that veers crazily between ultra-tense psychological thrills and nearly slapstick absurdist comedy.

That’s pretty much it for the plot; as with the majority of Suzuki’s films, it’s pure pulp.  There are plenty of ideas in Suzuki’s work, but this don’t have any depth of meaning greater than ‘stay away from gothy chicks with dead butterfly collections’.  Its joys are all in what’s on screen, not what’s behind it, but there’s an awful lot on that screen.  Suzuki uses a lot of techniques with his camera that are far ahead of their time:  big, wide, sweeping shots, tight moving closeups, and moving cameras that create a real tension between the action and the setting.  Watching it on the big screen, too, it’s easy to get caught in the sheer, raw physicality of the movie; Shishido is an intensely physical actor, and his movement is fierce and angry, just as his physical expressions are heated and broad without ever going over the top.  The fight scenes are brutal and without an iota of the stylistic grace of Asian martial arts cinema, and the sex scenes are exceptionally erotic and quite graphic for a movie made in Japan in the 1960s.  What’s particularly staggering about the film’s amazing visual flair and inventive ambition is that, like may of Suzuki’s films of the period, it was made on the cheap and in a rush — production restrictions that would have hobbled most directors, but seem to have only spurred him to new heights.

It’s the most blatantly noir of Suzuki’s work, but this is mostly expressed in the black-and-white filmwork (and to a lesser degree, in the inversion of the ruthless-pro/femme-fatale tropes), and it has less to say about Japan or about crime than it does about the mind of Seijun Suzuki.  It’s that rare film that, looked at in any depth, is either impenetrable or silly, but taken strictly on the surface, is so exciting that you really don’t care.

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