Branded to Kill
By Mike White
It seems to me that some of the best work is done during times of oppression. Take, for example, films made under the Hayes Code. This was Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" despite the lack of expressive freedom. The Code made people work harder to get their message across. Writers were working over-time to get double entendres into of their dialogue and a lot of directors had an agenda of their own in mind. Certainly some of those "messages" may originate solely from the minds of film theorists who make reading too much into things a way of life but I've no doubt that a good number of people worked very hard to subvert the Hayes Code and put out "questionable" material in the guise of wonderful films.
One could draw parallels to some of the Eastern European films discussed in CdC #6. Sure, Soviet Occupation is a little more serious than The Hayes Code, but the attempt to stifle the content of films and the outcome are still the same.
In Post-War Japan, no one was telling Seijun Suzuki that his films couldn't have naughty bits in them or that they could not offend the powers that be. Nevertheless, he faced one of the greatest oppressive forces of them all - a dead end job. I totally empathize with this guy. From what I understand, he wasn't happy at his job at Nikkatsu studios where he was assigned a butt load of standard yakuza genre films to make. The studio just wanted to get the job done while Suzuki wanted to make good movies. Story of my life. The result being that the world was blessed with several incredible films before Suzuki was fired.
One of Suzuki's wackier yakuza films is BRANDED TO KILL. I've read a few descriptions of this film but none of them were very accurate, nor did they prepare me for what I saw. It's the story of Hanada, Japan's number three assassin. He's pretty content with his rank: he's got a wife who could suck the chrome off a fender and she indulges his rice-cooking fetish. Plus, he's got steady work due to the high number of people to be rubbed out in creative ways (at one point he uses a balloon as a get-a-way vehicle).
However, things get hairy when he meets Misako, a cold butter-fly collector with a dead bird for a rear-view mirror decoration and an intense hatred for men and life in general. It's what you might call a stormy romance, especially since her character is associated with rain: every time Hanada thinks of her he sees or hears rain falling. Yeah, it's kind of kooky, but it works.
After Hanada screws up the job Misako hired him to do, he's on the outs with Japanese assassin society. The top killer ( "The Phantom Number One") does the puffy-cheeked Hanada a favor and informs him of his imminent assassination. Thus begins a horribly tense cat and mouse scene with Hanada trapped in an apartment and the Phantom Number One calling and taunting him. The Phantom Number One knows he's the best and doesn't hesitate to critique Hanada's reliance on trivial things like booze, women, and toilets.
The film is broken up into nearly self-contained sections which aids understanding. And Suzuki's sty;e, while being severely surreal at times, is not too dense to follow. Watching BRANDED TO KILL with the sound off is pretty fun and it allows one to pay more attention to the beauty of the visuals. However, the soundtrack for both this and Suzuki's TOKYO DRIFTER are pretty darn cool, too. I wouldn't be surprised to find that Seijun Suzuki did a completely musical yakuza film.
At this date, I'm only aware of these two Suzuki films being available with subtitles and they're both available through Luminous Film & Video Wurks (see ad for address), Samurai Video, and Video Search of Miami. VSoM also carries two others, FLOWER & ANGRY WAVES (Hana To Doto - 1964) and MIRAGE SUMMER THEATER (Kageroza - 1981), but these lack subtitles and this may pose a problem.
As a student of film theory, not a day passes without feeling the influence of French film criticism. It is sometimes difficult to imagine that some of the ideas put forth by the writers of Postif and Cahiers du Cinema were once considered radical since they are taken so for granted today.