by John A. Riley
At almost exactly the same time that Sean Connery’s crass, bloated 007 was undergoing plastic surgery to look more Japanese, Seijun Sujuki’s Branded to Kill debuted on Japanese screens, featuring Goro Hanada, an assassin whose licence to kill was entirely of his own making and who seemed determined to prove Fritz Lang right and Ian Fleming wrong.
The film unfolds in a series of frantic, violent set pieces that have the choppy feel of having been edited to half their runtime in some kind of alcohol fuelled, last-minute frenzy. Laconic, indifferent jazz music provides the perfect counterweight to this wilful chaos, while a welter of near-surreal details are captured by evocative, pulpy cinematography, most notably the room decorated with preserved butterflies: lepidoptery as metaphor for aestheticised violence.
Swift, unforgiving gunfights play out on purgatorial patches of wasteground, by isolated, ostentatious architecture. Sex is handled similarly to violence: perverted yet functional, and in this case fuelled by the smell of boiled rice.
The film’s plotting is handled in such a loose, understated way as to be near incomprehensible on first viewing. It simply hurtles forward at its own pace and according to an internal logic entirely of its own.
When a man is assassinated by a rifle poking through an advertising billboard in the shape of a cigarette lighter, we are reminded of 007 again, and his dispatching of a Bulgarian spy trying to escape slaughter by climbing out of a huge poster of Anita Ekberg’s mouth. But underpinning Bond’s callous cold-bloodedness is a kind of assured moral superiority, while here there is only chaos, and a wilful death wish.
Suzuki took the conventions of the Japanese crime film and fashioned them into something authentically strange and disturbing. No moral reflex apologises for the carnage, nor is there a thematic counterweight in the form of intense male bonding, as in the heroic bloodshed genre that flourished in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Doubtless this is why the film has found favour with latter day aesthetes of violence such as Tarantino. Indeed, the film shares many of the formal and thematic concerns of his beloved Spaghetti Western. But unlike Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Suzuki’s film did not find an instant audience of slavering fan boys on its release. Branded to Kill’s stature grew over the years, while Suzuki was inactive as a director for a decade, due to his freewheeling approach to genre material. But modern seekers of termite art and crazed, unqualified violence will find much to admire in this exhilarating film.