How unhinged does a film have to be to get a director fired? Or, more to the point, how unhinged does it have to be to get a seasoned gonzo cyclone like Seijun Suzuki fired? After more than 10 years of cranking out perverse pulp bonanzas for Nikkatsu studio, Suzuki ran afoul of producers in 1967 with Branded to Kill, a delirious, Cubist fusillade that swiftly got the filmmaker sacked on charges of “incoherence.” Of course, accusing the auteur behind Tattooed Life and Fighting Elegy of being incoherent is akin to accusing the Pacific Ocean of being wet, and yet it’s easy to see what about the film’s jumbled spirit so infuriated the studio heads: While most of his earlier underworld sagas subversively stretched the skin of boilerplate yakuza thrillers this way and that while still functioning as commercial genre offerings, Branded to Kill is virtually confrontational in its disdain for stylistic conventions and box-office expectations of producer and viewer alike. What Nikkatsu wanted was a follow-up to the brassy pop-art hit Tokyo Drifter; what Suzuki delivered was a stark, spastically existential—and, most affronting of all, defiantly unmarketable—crime-flick abstraction that unfolds like the director’s cracked self-portrait.
To recount the extended non sequitur of a plot is to feel one’s skull gradually splitting open. Goro (Jô Shishido, Suzuki’s go-to choice for bulbous parodies of leading men) is a professional assassin “ranked number three among killers,” a pair of shades frequently pinned to his rubbery visage and his libido perpetually inflamed by the scent of boiled rice. His air of Melvillian cool quickly gives way to paranoid frenzy after a hit job brings him in contact with Misako (Anne Mari), a sleek, spectral beauty who materializes in the midst of a downpour with the words “I hate men. My dream is to die.” Long before she snags him with the assignment that will turn him into a target for his own deadly organization, however, Goro’s macho control has already been undercut by the film’s very form, which Suzuki keeps in continuous upheaval via de-centered compositions, mile-wide jump cuts, and the sort of deranged spatial manipulation that makes the backseat of a car fluctuate in size from shot to shot. By the time the protagonist finds himself in a vacant boxing ring for a hysterical showdown with the Number One Killer (Kôji Nanbara), Japan has morphed into a vaguely extraterrestrial topography of cavernous rooms and hyper-modern furniture that barely follows the rules of time and space or cause and effect.
An extraordinary sensory experience, Branded to Kill is also very much Suzuki’s corkscrew vision of himself as a manic maverick ambushed by a ruthless, suffocating system. The despair concealed under the director’s surreal cartooning was never more evident: People have their identities reduced to ranking numbers, relationships are based on capricious, bestial appetites, and not even ordinary surfaces can be trusted (a sink becomes a lethal instrument as a bullet rushes up its drain pipe). His is a world of promiscuous symbols and nebulous yet rigid hierarchies, where the ability to piss in your pants mid-confrontation is hilariously offered as the ultimate proof of professionalism and the obsession with fighting for success—with literally being “Number One”—is run to absurd extremes until the characters have just about ground their fists into dust. With Goro’s lowly status as a killer-for-hire mirroring Suzuki’s cynicism toward the B-level projects handed him by Nikkatsu, it’s no wonder that the director can’t help but admire the puffy hitman’s dogged struggle for survival and illumination in this short-circuiting arena. Both a work of remarkable freedom and a coruscating dead-end, Branded to Kill proved to be a Pyrrhic victory for Suzuki, who was left unemployable for years—even if he did have the last word with Pistol Opera, his even more bewildering 2001 quasi-remake.
Chiaroscuro yin to Tokyo Drifter's psychedelic yang, Branded to Kill's high-contrast palette comes through with stark clarity, with the details forceful all the way to the patterns on the wings of the heroine's butterfly collection. The mono audio track is a sharp mix of jazzy cues and ricocheting bullets.
Seijun Suzuki turns up in a pair of interviews, discussing his love of dismantling cinematic grammar during a 1997 trip to a Los Angeles retrospective and recalling Branded to Kill's origins, reception, and aftermath (including his lawsuit against Nikkatsu and ensuing years directing TV commercials) in a more recent chat. Suzuki's eccentric methods are also described by assistant director Masami Kuzuu, who remembers how the original screenplay mutated wildly over the course of many drinking sessions (one glimpse of a script page amusingly reveals a veritable welter of scribbles, stains, and penciled-in notes). Funniest of all is an interview with star and weathered prankster Jô Shishido, whose impish remarks about aphrodisiac rice and phallic pistols often have the interviewer audibly cracking up from behind the camera. The theatrical trailer and a booklet essay by Tony Rayns round up the extras.
Both an unchained vision and a dead end, Seijun Suzuki's stark, spastically existential crime-flick abstraction unfurls like the director's cracked self-portrait.