Seijun Suzuki, “Branded to Kill / Koroshi no Rakuin” (1967)
After his previous gangster flick “Tokyo Drifter”, director Suzuki fell afoul of his bosses at Studio Nikkatsu who were irked that this particular worker bee was refusing to obey their orders to churn out formulaic fluff. They punished him by forbidding him to work with colour film among other things. Hence, follow-up film “Branded to Kill” is in B&W film. Apart from this restriction, Suzuki gleefully snubbed his employers by parodying corporate loyalty, ambition and conformity in his film about a hit-man who is not content with being Olympic bronze-medal status in the hierarchy of assassins – no, only the gold medal (and probably breaking a world record) will do.
Professional assassin Hanada (Jo Shishido) and his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) land in Tokyo and meet a former hitman Kasuga who wants to rejoin the killing profession. The three decide to team up and go to a club where they receive orders to escort a client from yakuza boss Yabuhara. Yabuhara tells Hanada that he, Hanada, is the Number 3 hit-man in Japan and then reels off the names of other top hit-men; Number 1 hit-man however remains unknown. The men take off with the client and Yabuhara seduces Mami who is staying behind. On their trip, Hanada, Kasuga and the client are ambushed twice and though the incompetent Kasuga ends up dead, Hanada manages to finish off Numbers 2 and 4 on his hit-list. On the way back to Yabuhara and Mami, Hanada’s car breaks down and a mysterious woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who nurses a death-wish, gives him a lift.
Yabuhara hires Hanada for another job in which he must dispose of a customs officer, an oculist and a jewellery store owner. Hanada does away with the trio in fine style, the oculist most memorably when Hanada in a basement undoes the drain pipe leading to the oculist’s wash-basin and shoots the oculist dead through the pipe when the man leans over the basin to wash an artificial eye. After killing the jewellery store owner, Hanada ingeniously escapes by climbing through a window and flinging himself onto an advertising balloon that fortuitously happens to be passing by! Not long after, Misako appears at Hanada’s front door with a job: he is to kill a foreigner whom she will indicate to him. Hanada reluctantly accepts the job and, if a butterfly hadn’t landed on his gun sights, would have successfully executed the foreigner. An innocent bystander dies instead and Hanada, his reputation in ruins and fearing for his life, has to go on the run. Mami leaves him and burns down their apartment. Hanada, dazed after Mami has attempted to kill him, visits Misako in her apartment where he seduces her.
Hanada goes after his wife, kills her and then chases down Yabuhara who is discovered dead with a bullet hole in his forehead. Hanada goes to see Misako again at her apartment and discovers a film playing in which she is being tortured. He is given a message to go to a breakwater where he is forced to engage in a gun battle with various hit-men. He gets rid of them all and then the mystery Number 1 (Koji Nanbara) turns up and challenges him to a duel. The preparations for the duel are quite arduous as Number 1 subjects our man to divers trials and tribulations that take them both to a boxing ring in a darkened gymnasium in the early hours of the morning.
Now those dastardly bosses at Studio Nikkatsu thought they had thwarted Suzuki by denying him the use of colour but instead Suzuki turns the B&W format to his advantage by nicking German Expressionist ideas about shadow and creating mystery and sinister ambience with contrasts of light and dark. He also uses film negatives in a few scenes to express Hanada’s paranoia when he is trapped by Number 1 and animated cut-outs of birds, butterflies and abstract illustrations of rain showers when Hanada mentally torments himself over Misako. The camp noirish world Hanada and his associates inhabit has its own soundtrack of jazz and Sixties pop which heighten the surreal atmospheres and emphasise the eccentric characters. And boy, are they ever eccentric! – Hanada is sexually aroused by the smell of boiling rice, Misako decorates her apartment with butterflies pinned to the walls and ceilings, and Number 1 is 110% dedicated to the craft and Tao of The Professional Assassin. The plot travels in some rather peculiar and comic directions and many gunfight scenes stretch the boundaries of credibility as Hanada single-handedly dispatches several hit-men all at once even though they have all the advantages of being many against one.
The editing can be strange and choppy and the effect is to give the film a fragmented narrative in which everything happens as an episode in the life of your everyday average Number 3 hit-man. At times the plot can be hard to follow; it seems deliberately to want to lose its viewers if only to see how they manage to grasp and pick up the gist of the plot. This further heightens the sense of being in a unique world where all the people worth knowing are gangsters or their molls and where the usual societal values are turned upside down on their heads and made fun of. Hanada determines that he will be the best hit-man in Japan and works as zealously as if he were a typical corporate sarariman in a huge Japanese conglomerate.
Shishido with his cheeks stuffed with cotton wads to give him a distinctive chipmunk look is very memorable as Hanada and his female co-stars give him a run for his money in the acting (or maybe over-acting) stakes. In line with the outrageous levels of violence, there are several explicit sexual scenes and a lot of female nudity. Japan’s famous censorship laws which permit almost every kind of sexual perversity but don’t allow exposure of female pubic hair are in force here.
For all Suzuki’s assertions to interviewers that his films were just for entertainment, there appear brief moments in the film where Hanada confronts what might be profound existential moments about why he exists and what is the purpose of his life. Choosing to strive for the Number 1 spot would be a worthy goal in any other occupation but as it is, the path is literally strewn with many obstacles and dead gun-men and viewers can sense a mile away that being Number 1 won’t be what it’s cracked up to be for Hanada. The climax in the boxing ring is beautifully done from an existentialist point of view, a perfect illustration of the futility of seeking the top dog spot and how ephemeral and empty is the joy of achieving it before eternal darkness descends.
The film is a joyous and wacky ride through Sixties pulp noir-crime cinema with a lot of energy and humour to spare. For making this film, Suzuki was fired by his bosses and blacklisted for a long time. He was reduced to making TV shows and did not direct another film until 1980.