Branded to Kill (1967) by Seijun Suzuki (T)

If you ever wanted a thorough analysis of one the most iconic Japanese cult classics, this is it

By Jonathan Wilson

"Branded to Kill" is Seijun Suzuki’s absurdist nihilistic statement. A film compelled by Freudian drives, surreally, brought into the bright light of day. From this perspective, the utterly insane plot makes deranged sense. Suzuki worked with a team of writers, in a daring collaborative effort; to bash the out script in double quick time. The studio, Nikkatsu rejected the initial script by another writer. Suzuki took this to mean that the studio was out of ideas, so eight men frantically wrote a script, and Suzuki bolted it altogether in a riot of cinema!

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Action and eroticism were the popular fashions in Japanese cinema through 1966/1967, so Suzuki intended to give the studio what they want!  This slice of pragmatism led to him being fired, a long law-suit and being blacklisted for a decade.

"Branded to Kill" is an anarchic gangster film, jarring in tone, brutal in action and wild in sex, but awash with the deeply weird ideas, visually and expressed in the dialogue. A film driven by ideas, a pure stylistic cinema is always going to run into trouble at a mainstream studio. Nikkatsu expected an exploitative B-movie, a gangster filled with action thrills. This is exactly what they got; the action set pieces are exciting and inventive, as are, the sex scenes. Seijun Suzuki decided to fulfil genre expectations, but also to utterly subvert them.  Throughout the film there is mad editing, preposterous plot developments, and explorations of dark philosophical themes, blended with satire, visual gags, and surreal comedy. Thrown into this brew is Kazue Nagatsuka’s sensational noir, German Expressionistic, French New Wave black and white cinematography! "Branded to Kill" is a bubbling cauldron of cinema!  The Studio was not pleased!

The Incomprehensible Plot

The bones of the story are very simple. Jô Shishido plays Gorô Hanada, the third ranked hitman in Japan. He is a cool, cruel and an efficient professional killer until he meet Misako, the death fixated beauty. Annu Mari, the Indian/Japanese actress is simply outstanding as Misako. She offers him a job that is botched, when a butterfly lands on his rifle’s scope. The ‘organisation’ sends in the mysterious Phantom Killer Number 1 to whack Hanada, for his incompetence. A fairly conventional gangster/hitman narrative, but the way the plot is driven by Suzuki; it is a macabre dance of death, with bizarre asides. The sheer amount of visual and audio experimentation is mind boggling, contrasted with the most direct dialogue this side of Sam Fuller. "Branded to Kill" is a wild ride of satirical nihilism, where Eros is completely stamped on by Thanatos.

Harmonica Jazz

The soundtrack by Naozumi Yamamoto is minimalist in approach, apart from the occasional audio gag. Most of the music is a stripped down mix of jazz drums, double bass and harmonica. The occasional addition of harpsichord is genuinely innovative. The harmonica/harpsichord is an unusual combination, and is suitably dreamy for this strange film. The wailing of the harmonica ebbs and flows depending on the needs of the scene, accompanied by the harpsichord, when necessary.

Genre Expectation Fulfilled

 Right from the beginning of the film genre expectations are subverted. Hanada flies back into to town with his gorgeous and fashionable spendthrift wife, Mami. ‘The Man Apart’, has a wife! By absurdist ‘entertainment over logic’, the taxi driver, Gihei Kasuga, who picks Hanada and his wife, is a former ranked killer and wants back in the game. He introduces Hanada to local Yakuza boss, Michiko Yabuhara, at his bar, who gives him a contract. Kasuga waxes lyrical about the dangers of woman and drink, for the professional killer. At the bar, Hanada demonstrates his sensibility by ordering boiled rice. His wife orders whiskey and she instantly takes a liking to the boss, Yabuhara . The film is packed with these strange moments. Hidden desires are brought out into the open!

Hanada                       I can’t help smelling your perfume

The opening action scenes fulfil genre expectation. Hanada efficiently blows away goons as they’re ambushed twice. His job is to drive the mysterious Client, a big shot from ‘The Organisation’, from Sagami Beach to Nagano, for 5 million yen.

The taxi driver who facilitates things, starts to fall apart as they drive The Client, his nerves shred with tension,  and eventually hits the bottle. The interactions in the car, give cinematographer Nagatsuka the opportunity to create playful frames in the classic noir style, eyes in the car mirror, flashes of bright light on the eyes of The Client, shadows swirling around him. The complicated lighting perfectly realised. When Hanada reports to the Yakuza boss, Mami is already in bed with Yabuhara, she is moving up the foodchain!  

One of the most bizarre kills of the film is the demise of boozing taxi driver Kasuga. Hiroshi Minami plays Kusaga’s decent into a drunk and humiliated mess with aplomb. Kasuga dances around, dodging bullets, ashamed. In a suicidal charge, he rushes ranked killer Number 4, Koh. Cinematographer Nagatsuka frames Koh standing stylish at the bottom of tunnel, in the light. Kasuga walks through the tunnel, all white tiles in high contrast. These are superbly framed shots, building up a peculiar tension.  Kasuga sprints towards Koh, eyes wide, mouth frothing, like a feral animal. Kasuga and Koh hug, as shots ring out. Kasuga drops and Koh finishes him off coolly, with his silenced pistol, satisfied. He walks away talking off his fashionable jacket, then promptly falls over, covering his own head with the jacket, and dies! A surreal, but professional way to die. The Client is unimpressed with Kasuga’s lack of professionalism, three bodies lying on the ground, dead.

Hanada deals with ranked Killer No.2, Sukura, in shootout at a concrete bunker. He throws a petrol canister, and shoots it, setting Sukura on fire. In a bravura stunt scene, Sukura runs and burns for many metres, across the dust and brush, charging to the Volkswagen Beetle, trying to shoot The Client. A professional to the end!  The Client finished him off cleanly, with his pistol. Hanada wonders if he is a ranked killer.

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‘I Hate Men’

When Hanada’s car breaks down, in the pouring rain, matters turn very strange.  A classy convertible drives by and stops for Hanada, open top in the rain! A mysteriously beautiful woman, completely soaked, is driving. Misako Nakajo is played to perfection by Japanese/Indian actress Annu Mari. She gives Hanada a lift and he is enchanted by her beauty. Sex and death come into conflict.

Hanada                       Are you married?
Misako                        I hate men
Hanada                       Then you have no hope.
Hanada                       My hope is to die

This brilliant pithy, concise dialogue is one of the inventive features of "Branded to Kill". No flab, straight to the point, giving it a pugilistic poetic quality.
Hanada notices a dead Mynah bird attached to her car mirror, like a decoration, a nail in its throat, water spraying everywhere!

‘You’re Only Nice To Me When We’re Having Sex’

Hanada sniffs rice; Mami skips around the house naked. They live in a fine bourgeois apartment, minimalist with fashionable modern conveniences and furnishings. The geometric cinematography perfectly captures the hip and trendy apartment, and the set design by Sukez Kawahara aptly describes their upwardly mobile status.  Once Hanada reaches sexual arousal, with his boiled rice sniffing, it’s to ecstatic acrobatic sex with the wildly energetic Mami. Sex on the spiral stairs, all over the house! A bacchanal carnival of desire and boiled rice! Suzuki satirically keeps cutting back to the empty bed. Eros fights back in this great scene!

Mariko Ogawa is outstanding as the ambitious dynamic wife, a cheerful femme fatale! She likes to spend cash, be fashionable. She uses her bubbly, overt good time sexuality as the key to her ambition, but she is playing with fire. From what I can gather, Mariko Ogawa never featured in another film, which is shame, as she has a raw direct energy sparking off the screen.

Comic Strip kills

Over the next few scenes, Seijun Suzuki goes all James Bond.  Hanada receives several contracts, highlighting his professional death dealing. These scenes are full of visual gags, satirical of corporate Japan and consumerism. The action sequences are very exciting.

Customs Officer, Railway Station

Hanada hides behind a mechanical lighter advert, where a big finger flicks the lighter, opening a gap for his rifle. Bang! Killed by consumerism! A lingering static shot of the Customs Officer, dead in the dirt by the track side. A witty but cruel juxtaposition between of the lack of dignity in the customs officer’s death with the jokey assassination set up.

Dr Hino Oculist, Nagatacho Building

Dr Hino pulls a glass eye out of manikin’s head, gung flops out of the hole. This is a witty nod to Bunuel/Dali. He palm slaps the glass eye in his patient’s empty socket, slapstick style! Hanada loosens a water pipe in the basement. Dr Hino washes something in the sink. Boom, the top of his head is blown clean off! He is shot through the water pipe by Hanada, demonstrating his Number 3 status! Again the comedy killing is offset with a great special effect, the gruesome hole in the top Mr Hino’s head.

Jeweller, Nakamori Building.

Hanada walks in the corporate office, blows away two goons, shots the receptionist, who is left spinning on his chair, behind an absolutely huge reception desk. Hanada opens some sliding doors, steps outside, and we assume, he is going to fall to his death! This office is on the upper floors of a high-rise corporate building. It is odd that there is a sliding door in this high rise room! Luckily a random advertising air balloon is floating outside, so Hanada lays down on top of the balloon to shoot the jeweller. The Jeweller appears, running a round in panic seeing the three dead bodies.  It is assumed Killer Number 3 despatches the Jeweller from top of the floating balloon! This whole series of surreal absurdities makes for a well-choreographed and memorable action scene.

‘I Want You To Kill A Foreigner!’

Misako mysteriously re-appears, in the soaking rain, and asks Hanada to kill a foreigner. Reluctantly Killer No.3 takes the contract. Misako escorts the foreigner out of a hotel, but the hit is a botch. Hanada misses, as a butterfly lands on his rifles’ scope! A delirious moment, but he accidentally kills an innocent woman instead. Misako passes judgement.

Misako                         You’re finished you’ve lost your rank
Someone will come to kill you now
                                    You’re going to die
Hanada                        Die?
Misako                         Have you ever seriously contemplated death?

Fountains are spraying!

‘We’re Just Beasts’

Another finely framed scene by Nagatsuka, Harada and Mami are in the bath, the shower is spraying! Jô Shishido, in an interview, says that many of the strange physical poses throughout Branded To Kill are from Degas. Suzuki directed the actors, by showing them art prints of Degas, and the various poses he painted of human beings. The bath scene is such a scene based on Degas.

In the bath his wife despairs,

Mami                           We’re just beasts
A beast needs a beast
            And we’ll die like beasts

Death starts to stalk his wife’s thinking.

Hanada wants to get out of town, but his wife dashes into the room, naked with a gun, and shoots him. Running out, she sets fire to their flash pad. Hanada stumbles up; his belt buckle stops the bullet! The fire flares up the spiral stairs, he staggers out. A fire vortex bursts through the spiral staircase. This is a great shot captured by Nagatsuka, in unnerving style. The external shot of the apartment fire is framed by more vivid cinematography.  Geometric angles, lines of architecture, contrast with the diagonal line of fire. Both fire scenes are very expressionistic, not unlike a Universal horror flick from the 1930s, the fires of hell licking.

Observing this fiery drama is Misako, she is standing by some more fountains! In noir style, her white expressionless face contrasts with shadows shrouding her. She suddenly smiles an evil knowing smile. Annu Mari’s acting, from impassive emptiness to pure wickedness, is excellent. There are many extreme close ups of her face, so her transformations of expression have to be immaculate, expressing her impulses against her antagonistic emptiness. The shadows that cloak her are a truer reflection of her inner nothingness. She is a cinematic illustration of contemporary horror writer, Thomas Ligotti’s nihilistic metaphor of The Shadow.

The Butterfly Collector! Eros! Thanatos! A Gothic Farce!

Hanada somehow staggers to Misako’s apartment and falls into a gothic delirium. The production/art design and cinematography in this importance scene, is beyond inventive. Misako’s apartment is shrouded in shadow, but where light falls on the walls, hundreds of butterflies and moths are skewered with pins or needles. Misako gives Hanada a deathly smile from the shadows. When Hanada collapses, Misako pounces on him, but Hanada pulls a gun on her. She wipes blood off him, and she walks into the shower, her clothes on, to rinse off the blood. Hanada’s desire is fired by her weird behaviour and beautiful face, he orders her to strip off! She threatens him with a poisoned needle! Hanada can only reply, ‘I want to eat rice’!

The sheer volley of weirdness, desire, nonsensical gothic atmosphere and the interaction of Jô Shishido and Annu Mari, is a barrage on the senses. This whole sequence is the heart of the film. The battle between Eros and Thanatos is at its most intense. Emptiness, the urge to nothing, battles with yearning and human touch. The death dealer and the death seeker, somehow humanise each other, as they battle their strange impulses. This scene is a demented melodrama with farcical comings and goings.

Misako’s white face looms into focus, through the shower water, she smiles. Hundreds of butterflies pinned to the wall! Dizzying Lepidoptera everywhere! Nagatsuka captures this hallucinatory scene with gusto, an uncanny light and shade palette, zooms and panning through the room. The set design, lighting, acting and direction of this whole scene is high art.

Hanada eats his rice, and puzzles over Misako

Hanada                       It’s like a cemetery
Misako                        Where can I pierce you?
Hanada                       I wanted to embrace you

In a birdcage, two birds are singing sweetly. Misako says she likes mynah birds! Hanada holds a gun and takes off her shoes. He tries to embrace her, but gets a handful of butterflies. Misako is laid out like a corpse, staring emotionless, completely possessed by The Shadow. She pulls a gun and fires, Hanada runs off. Now there is a comedy voyeuristic shot of Misako, through a keyhole, pulling up her tights! The jarring shots continue. Hanada escapes the apartment on a makeshift rope of bedsheets!  There is a gunshot through a towel! Disorientating images, shifts in tone, through a series of swift edits!

A seemingly emotionally empty Misako starts peeling wings off the dead butterflies, an automaton of delicious despair, but is she reacting to Hanada? Hanada returns to the butterfly den, and knocks Mariko’s pistol out of her hand. In a moment of frenzy he starts to tear off Misako clothes, a possible threat of sexual violence, but Hanada stops.

Hanada                         I’ll kill you
 That’s what you’re hoping for

She reposes in anguish opening her throat to the inevitable, but Hanada’s heart melts and he can only hug her, all thoughts of violence disappear. Her strange impassive search for death is unsettling the death dealer, empathy creeps into his heart. Misako expresses her emptiness, her sadness, her wickedness in an expressionistic performance by Annu Mari, she is magnificent.

They finally have sex, Hanada kissing Misako intensely, but she is passionless and impassive, a large moth/butterfly observes the action from a light fitting! Hanada finally grabs a gun and points it between her breasts, she is unresponsive and emotionless. The camera slowly starts to pan down her naked body, the moth settles over her private parts. The birdcage is knocked over, the Mynah birds dead, skewered by pins! Hanada disturbed leaves Misako’s apartment in a blouse!

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Shadows Lighten

Assuming that Hanada has no particular place to go, he returns to the apartment. He decides to kill her, but the apartment has changed significantly. Hanada’s confused intervention has had some effect on Misako. Her apartment is brighter, with a corporate feel.  Hanada confronts Misako in a room with a huge desk, a Bakelite phone on it, similar in manner to the jeweller’s corporate office. Misako, constantly soaked, followed by rain, showers and fountains, has her own large apartment and a convertible. She is an affluent single professional, who is trapped ιν a despairing situation. Hanada finds a rifle behind a large house plant. Foliage has now suddenly appeared in Misako’s apartment, but he puts it back. Hanada refuses to kill Misako, but she pulls out the rifle and threatens Hanada. He warns her not to fire, as the barrel is clogged with soil.

Misako                        I don’t care. I’m already a corpse

He wrestles the gun from her and holds her head tenderly, she finally releases a tear.

A Killer’s Crisis

Hanada debates with himself about his professionalism and the disruption Misako is having on him. Stalking in an urban wilderness, Hanada has his Shakespearean moment of existential angst. Not an advisable trait for a cold-hearted killer, but his humanity is struggling to reassert itself. Psychedelia invades! Cartoon style white lines, white birds, white butterfly silhouettes are superimposed on the Hanada’s confused face. Hanada is laid out at the side of the road, sleeping. He is framed against massive monolithic scene, concrete structures weighing down of him, perfectly photographed by Nagatsuka.

Back at Misako’s apartment, there is now the latest modern convenience for boiling rice! A witty statement of affection! Panning through the clean and bright apartment, there is a bin full of butterflies and the dead Mynah birds. Hanada decides it is time to kill the Yakuza boss.

The Boss! A Killing! Another Killing!

Hanada walks into the boss’s apartment, with the intension of killing him, but his wife Mami jumps out playfully, covering his eyes. She thinks it is the boss, she embraces Hanada and kisses him, until she realises who it is! She faints, wearing her chic new clothes!

When she comes round, she gives an exposition of the diamond smuggling ‘plot’, pleading for her life. She was ordered to kill him, as she is just another little bird trapped in a gilded cage. She has to follow orders! The theft of some of the diamonds, from smuggled diamond shipment, would drive most Yakuza flicks, but in Branded To Kill, the rationale of such narrative, is irreverent. The reason is not important, just the contract. It is his failure to kill the foreign investigator, is his error that drives Branded To Kill’s ‘plot’ in final act of film. Misako is implicated as a member of the ‘The Organisation’, another skewered Mynah bird in a cage. Through this explanation, Hanada is slumped against the wall his head down, in world weary silence. His wife tries her old game, and re-appears at a door naked. He is motionless, and continues to look down.

Mami                          We’re beasts
                                  We’re both like beasts

Hanada shoots her through the gut. He is furious, filled with unprofessional anger.

Hanada                      We’re beasts are we!
                                  Well I’m not!

She crawls into the toilet, where Hanada shoots her again, killing her in beastly fashion! She is dead, her face staring upwards, but the back of her head in the toilet. A hair piece is swirling in the toilet bowl!

Hanada starts to fall apart. He is distraught with anguish and guilt. He’s murdered his wife out of rage, his professionalism ebbing.  He notices an expensive looking bottle of booze. He is sozzled by the time Yabuhara returns home, but before he can stumble into action, the boss falls through the door, dead! A perfect hole in forehead, the signature kills of the mysterious Client! Hanada stumbles through a monumental urban landscape, boozing and staggering.

Descent Into The Inferno

Hanada returns to Misako’s apartment with a hangover, but is confronted with a wondrous vision. Misako poses naked, the shadow of a spinning film projector preserving her dignity, an angel of the movies. It is one of those sublime moments when Suzuki’s direction, Kawahara’s art design, Nagatsuka’s cinematography, the flawless use light and shadow, combined with Mari’s acting, produce one of those moments of pure cinema. Self-referential, post-modern, magical! As with much of Branded to Kill, this vision is jolted, twisted, and the angelic Misako evaporates, and she is replaced by a real projected film, showing her in a hellish ordeal. She is tied naked to a post, flames from blow torches flickering all around her. She is like a witch about to be burnt at the stake. The Organisation is interrogating her on why she didn’t kill Hanada. She mouths ‘I Love You’! Hanada is desperate, hoping for a clue of her location. She drops naked on a glass floor, flames licking all around her.

Hanada                       She’s dead. Misako’s dead  

Into The Action

Hanada is drinking, waiting at a bar. The Bakelite phone rings, The Organisation is in touch.

The Organisation       You’ll take your revenge for the girl you loved?
                                   Go Right ahead
                                   Your reward is nothing
                                   Aren’t you ashamed as a professional killer

The waitress laughs at him, pulling out a long string of bubble-gum from her teeth!

The last major action scene now progresses. Hanada drives his car up a causeway, through the sea, to some kind of port/refinery. Goons are blazing away at him as he drives up. He stops the car; gets under it for protection. There are some pulley ropes on the grounds, Suzuki’s inventive entertainment over logic theory, in full effect. He grasps one end of the rope on the causeway and ties it to the car. He grips the other end of the rope, and pulls, using the pulley to move the car nearer to the goons, as a shield. This is a physical scene for Jô Shishido, pulling with all his might! He moves close enough to start shooting the gangsters with his rifle, taking one out. He throws his jacket filled with fire crackers, a distraction to entice out the other shooter out and blasts him into hell! He tries to dispatch another hood, but his gun jams. He uses his detached wing mirror, to pin-point the gangster. He rushes back to the car and drives up the causeway squashing his enemy. Hanada now drops his clothes to ground, as two more shooters drive up the causeway, blazing away. He swims alongside the causeway and comes up behind the goons, in super-heroic quick time and shoots them. A great shot of Jô Shishido in his underwear and his pistol, in the bright light of day, sprawled out on the road, relieved to be alive. An American aircraft carrier passes by in the sea, oblivious to the action! Phantom killer Number 1 unexpectedly appears, with several associates. Number 1 speaks with demented death poetry!

Number 1                   I will kill you
                                  I’ll repay my debt by warning you
                                  That I’ll kill you!

He forces Hanada in the car. The mysterious Client from the earlier action scenes is Phantom Killer Number 1, a mystery no more! Phantom Killer Number 1 starts to play Jacobean mortality games with Hanada, laying him under siege in Misako’s apartment

Under Siege

Hanada’s nerve is tested to the limit with random pot shots and the incessant phone calls of irrational threats from Number 1

Number 1                 I wanted to kill you with one shot
                                But I will kill you so simply
                                You’ll resent it!

Phantom Killer Number 1 likes to intone his crazed philosophy of death, instructing Hanada in its minutiae.

Hanada gazes out on the city landscape searching for his enemy. This is exceptional cinematography by Nagatsuka, piling on the pressure and paranoia, the oppressive weight of concrete and glass. The entire city-scape goes into negative; silence is broken with thousands of babies crying!

Standing on the kitchen table, Hanada is inhaling rice for relief. He looks through his rifle scope on the kitchen table, to see a baby crying! These jarring illogical images are coming hard and fast. Hanada is exhausted through lack of sleep and anxiety, Number 1 rings him to give him more outrageous advice

Number 1                  Finished your meal?...Chew your food properly.
                                 You won’t be able to fight well if you’re under-nourished.
                                 Proteins are what you need. It’s good to die as fat as a pig.

This peculiar dialogue is spoken in cool stentorian tones, by the actor Kôji Nanbara, who plays Number 1. It is riotously strange, and electrifying.

Bending Time And Space

Hanada makes a run for it, dashing out of the apartment. Space and time are warped in another fantastical scene that barely lasts a few seconds. Hanada runs down two flights of fire escape stairs, on the high rise where Misako lives. He is abruptly driving her convertible away on the road far below! Time and space are shattered, superhero style. This is a fine example of Suzuki’s pure entertainment over logic theme. This brilliantly realised short scene asks strange questions of cinematic space and time, without the use of any special effects. It is beautifully photographed by Nagatsuka, the monstrous angular modernist architecture is the static backdrop to this experiment in space and time. Hanada can now eat some rice in a bar, after his mind bending efforts. He escapes, eats, goes back to the apartment!

Time and space are smashed again. Hanada patiently waits to trick Number 1 into giving away his whereabouts in the city-scape. Number 1 takes a pot-shot into the apartment, Hanada comes swinging, Tarzan style, with a rope holding his feet. He shoots back at Number 1 in a church tower, the bell ringing with ricochet. Hanada gets to his feet with the idea of chasing after number 1, but the master killer is already at the door, pointing his pistol! Phantom Killer Number 1 is also a master of time and space; he miraculously covers a large space in a couple of seconds, as if by teleportation.

The New Lodger, Phantom Killer No.1!

Preposterous absurdity explodes when Phantom Killer Number 1 moves in with Hanada, to give him a lesson in consummate professionalism. This scene works like long Monty Python sketch!  Phantom Killer Number 1 sleeps with his eyes open! Pisses himself in his suit! Ironic S&M motifs abound as they are tied together, so they don’t kill each other. Suzuki satirises Number 1’s obsessive attention to professional detail, making a mockery of his masculinity. When they take a delivery of a package at the door, tied together, the postman is very unsettled! They even go out for meal, before Number 1 finally disappears during the meal. Hanada looks for him in the toilet, but then another jarring surreal moment detonates. Instead of finding Number 1, he opens the toilet door to confront man with facial burns. There is a hairpiece swirling in the toilet!

Mami                         We’re beasts
                                 We’ll die like beasts

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The Balloon

Hanada’s nerves are frayed. He dashes back to Misako’s place in anguish. He finds a note, in the cartridge of a pistol from Number 1.

I’ll be waiting at the Etsurakuen Gymnasium            
Between 1am and 3 am.
If you don’t come you’re a coward.

The exhausted Hanada moves around the apartment in strange physical poses, no doubt directed by Suzuki, from his Degas prints. Jô Shishido is superb, physically extracting Hanada’s anguish. Hanada opens the package from the earlier delivery; it is a roll of film, for the projector. The film features Misako, head bandaged and on crutches, convalescing. Misako is still alive! He resists opening another bottle of booze. In Godard style, Hanada looks out of the window, and a balloon surreptitiously floats by, he seizes it.

Hanada                       Why shouldn’t be I become Number 1?
                                   I will become number 1

He bounces the ball up and down the room, with a spring back in his step, smiling. The harmonica/harpsichord upbeat jazz plays an upbeat rhythm to his step! What is more important to him? Being number 1? Saving Misako? Hanada’s judgement is cracking under the strain.

Death At The Gymnasium

The final shootout in the gym is where one second of time is stretched out over several minutes, accentuating Hanada’s sweaty tension. A couple of seconds unexpectedly turns into a couple of hours. This experimentation with time dilation/expansion is masterly created in the editing room by Suzuki. Irrational moments aplenty too, with cans of food and a flowery head band in the corner of the boxing ring!

Ghostly angular shots of the boxing ring, and the build-up of tension by the clock, generate a disorientating pressure.  It has the visuals of the classic boxing noir "The Set-Up" by Robert wise. The tension of the ticking clock is the famous device used in High Noon. Ironically, both those films build up the tension by the drama enfolding in ‘real’ time. Time is far more flexible in Branded To Kill, but the ‘unreal’ use of time, builds up the sweaty tension efficiently. 3 pm is reached and it looks like Number 1 is a no show, Hanada climbs into the ring in a dizzy state, spitting ‘coward’ from his lips. He finds the cans and puts on the flowery headband for good measure. A cassette tape now starts to intone the ‘philosophy’ of Phantom Killer Number 1, taunting Hanada, with demented dialogue.

Number 1                   This is how Number 1 works
                                  He teases you, tires you
                                  Then he kills you

Phantom Killer Number 1 appears and the hit-men start blazing way at each other. Hanada and Number 1 shoot each other, but Harada’s flower laden headband saves him! It looks like Hanada is now number 1, but the Phantom Killer has some steam left in him and blasts Number 3. Hanada hoists himself up and finally finishes off Number 1, blowing him away. Harada cries ‘I’m Number 1’ in a frenzied passion.  At this very moment, a pathetic and bandaged Misako stumbles into the gym on crutches. She is shot dead, by deadly instinct, by the new Number 1. At that same instant Hanada falls out of the ring dead. Three dead bodies in a gym! Thanatos’ triumph is complete!

Branded To Kill

Branded To Kill is an absurd dance of death. Thanatos haunts the dialogue all the way through the film and is victorious. Whether by satire, desire, cruelty, professionalism, symbolism or pure insanity, it makes no odds, the result is just the same. Circumstance or bad luck, death reigns supreme! Seijun Suzuki creates a unique, experimental b-movie, hit-man experience. Visually stunning, relentlessly surprising, and at times completely illogical! A magnificent film! 



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Asian Film Vault: Branded to Kill (1967) by Seijun Suzuki (T)
Branded to Kill (1967) by Seijun Suzuki (T)
If you ever wanted a thorough analysis of one the most iconic Japanese cult classics, this is it
Asian Film Vault
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