Branded to Kill (1963)
By Caroline Rennox
“Drink and women can be the death of a killer”
Siejun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill comes with a lot of baggage - it is, after all, the film that got Suzuki fired for turning in something ‘incomprehensible’ and, worse, unprofitable to studio NIkkatsu’s director Kyusaki Hori. A long term and highly prolific director of studio Nikkatsu’s relentless b-movie production line, Suzuki had honed his talent for combining visually arresting, inventive filmmaking with the thrill of pure entertainment, but Branded’s willful disregard for the conventions of straightforward action cinema were too much of a gamble for a studio trying to weather massive changes in the industry.
For an ‘incomprehensible’ film, Branded to Kill really has, at its core, a pretty straightforward plot - No.3 ranked contract killer Hanada falls in love with a strange woman, fails to complete an assigned kill, is betrayed by his wife and then relentlessly pursued by the mysterious No.1 killer. The plot, however, is almost of no consequence in a film which is so committed to providing its audience with such a strange, dreamlike experience. Suzuki’s film deliberately disrupts its own plot with unexplained jumps in time and location, which leave the viewer feeling as dislocated as Hanada himself. There are hints throughout that our No.3 killer isn’t quite the pro that his ranking would seem to suggest - as he continually drinks from his ever-present hip-flask and bottles of booze appear from nowhere, the film gains the feeling of a blearily recalled night of drunkenness. As we are dislocated in time and space by the film, Hanada struggles with making sense of his own reality.
Despite lacking the distinctive use of colour seen in many of Suzuki’s other films, Branded had plenty to savour visually. We frequently view characters through pouring rain or otherwise obscured, sometimes gradually coming into focus from hazy shots that introduce an uncertainty in what we are really seeing. In one striking sequence, Hanada flees from his morbid lover Misako, his distress at being unable to kill her is amplified by a screen that is invaded by patterns of the same dead birds and butterflies that fill her apartment.
If this all sounds a bit arty and po-faced, then it’s worth mentioning that the film is also wildly entertaining and blackly comic. According to leading man Joe Shishida, Suzuki’s artful direction extended to basing some wildly improbable looking sex scenes on artwork by Degas and jokingly gives his super serious hitman an erotic addiction to sniffing boiled rice. Hanada’s execution of his three diamond-smuggling targets are also rather cheerfully bizarre - from a hot air balloon getaway, to one target being shot through a sink drain from several floors below. These convoluted executions almost seem to be mocking the very idea of the highly skilled super-assassin, especially in a world in which hitmen appear to compete for a place in an arbitrary top ten ranking system.
The final sequence of the film sees Hanada betrayed by his adulterous wife, certain that his lover is dead and pursued by the mysterious No.1 killer in an extended sequence of sweaty, drunken paranoia. No.1’s methods are appropriately bizarre as he eventually shows up at Hanada’s flat, insisting that they now must sleep, eat and piss together, with guns kept tantalisingly close on the table. After disappearing once again, challenging Hanada to meet him face on at an empty gymnasium, No.1 taunts him remotely with a gloating message about his imminent victory - ‘you’re tired, your nervous, you feel your destiny closing in on you… ‘. Perhaps this is the destiny of all killers, to die afraid and alone, surrounded by other predators?
It’s impossible to cover everything that makes Branded to Kill such a unique and wonderful cinematic experience in one review and the film itself is one that yields new treasures on repeated viewing. It’s a film best enjoyed by giving in to the fever dream atmosphere and enjoying Suzuki’s endless attempts to entertain and delight his audience. With Arrow Video having created a beautifully packaged remaster of the film, there’s no reason not to seek out this true cinematic treasure.