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Branded To Kill

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Branded To Kill
cast: Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Anne Mari, and Koji Nambara

director: Seijun Suzuki

91 minutes (18) 1967
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Yume DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
This is the movie that got director Seijun Suzuki sacked by the studio and blacklisted, a little harsh as he'd been called in at the last minute for rewriting and directing duties. Although previously warned about his surreal anarchic tendencies, Suzuki apparently thought up much of the action on the spot, and invited input from cast and crew. His subversion of the 'yakuza' and 'hitman' genres proved too much for macho traditionalists in the Nikkatsu Company and Suzuki was dumped, but successfully sued his employers leading to his blacklisting. Emphysema has curtailed his directing duties of late, but in 2001 he directed a follow-up/ remake of Branded To Kill (aka: Koroshi no rakuin) titled Pistol Opera, once again with Nikkatsu who, now convinced of the worth of their maverick employee, have hosted a retrospective of his work.

Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido) is 'number three' killer; he flies into Tokyo airport accompanied by his wife to take on his latest job. The couple's driver Kasuga is a former hitman who asks Hanada to try and get him back into the business. Hanada accepts his mission to escort a client for yakuza boss Yabuhara. Yabuhara flirts with Hanada's wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) who reveals her disgust at her husband's fetish for inhaling rice steam.

Collecting their client, Hanada and Kasuga are attacked by other hitmen, Kasuga is killed but Hanada and the mysterious client despatch the other killers. Walking back in the rain Hanada is offered a lift by Misako (Anne Mari), a troubled female with a death wish whose image fills his mind when, hyped up on rice steam, he indulges in vigorous and casually violent sex with his wife.

Hanada is offered further multiple hits for Yabuhara, and then accepts a contract from Misako, which goes wrong when a butterfly obscures the telescopic sight on his rifle. Hanada's own wife attempts to kill him, and later reveals a convoluted plot involving diamond smuggling before Hanada shoots her. Yabuhara also winds up dead and Hanada discovers his failures have made him a target for the 'number one' killer, revealed to be the client requiring an escort from earlier in the film.

Jo Shishido with his cosmetically enlarged cheeks looks like an Asiatic Timothy Spall. He perfectly expresses Hanada's descent into alcohol-fuelled torment. The film is full of shadows, hallucinatory interludes and shocks, like a gangster flick shot by Ingmar Bergman. Misako's apartment is full of stuffed birds and mounted butterflies and moths, redolent of her obsession with death. There are scenes in the rain and under showers; Mami Hanada lies dead in the bathroom with her hair spinning in the lavatory bowl. Hanada, realising he can become 'number one' killer, plays with a balloon with the innocent distraction of a child. Hanada receives instruction via reels of film and has to watch as Mishako is tortured with flamethrowers. It is easy to be convinced that the sadism is reflective of some aspect of Japanese culture, Hanada slapping Mami around during sex, but this kind of casual violence towards women was prevalent in films in the 1960s, Bond slaps Tatiana Romanova around when he thinks she has betrayed him in From Russia With Love.

The stagy atmospherics of Branded To Kill might have upset the studio on their own, but Suzuki introduces comic elements, with 'number one' killer moving in with Hanada to further torment him before killing him. Linked together by hair bands securing their wrists, the two killers even have to visit the toilet together; it was obviously all too much for the Nikkatsu Company.

In a decade dominated by spy and hard-case movies, that often did not reflect the cultural changes going on in society at large, it is illuminating to see how a culture obsessed with the iconic figure of James Bond, You Only Live Twice came out the same year, offered an arty mannered riposte, albeit one inspired by a particularly individual talent.

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