Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 film Branded to Kill is incomprehensible. In fact, it was deemed so incomprehensible in its time that it got him fired from his studio job and resulted in his exile from the Japanese film industry for a full ten years. Today Suzuki is considered an auteur, but in the 1960s his style was much maligned. He had to contend with industry elites that weren’t known for their creativity or for their farsightedness. Some fifteen years earlier, the same breed of men had similarly disparaged Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon—a film which shaped the medium and informs much of what we see today—only to turn around and pat themselves on the back when it ended up winning the Golden Lion in Venice. But we might forgive them for acting more rashly in the case of Branded to Kill: the inventive Rashomon seems positively conservative compared to Suzuki’s messy, surrealistic fever dream. What is Branded to Kill really about? Your guess would likely be as good as mine—even if you haven’t seen it. But it is an artistic marvel, and it leaves us reclining back in our seats, utterly awestruck.
Joe Shishido stars as an assassin named Hanada, the third-best hired gun in all of Japan. The film comes dangerously close to being a series of non sequiturs, all centered on Hanada, but there is a general theme that is slowly built upon: Hanada becoming the “Number One Killer,” the yakuza’s top assassin. Along the path to achieving this he disposes of a variety of criminals, accidentally slays an innocent woman when a butterfly lands on the barrel of his rifle (thereby causing him to miss his shot), has rough sex with his wife (who, incidentally, was hired to murder him), gets off on the smell of cooked rice, and meets a girl named Misako who is obsessed with dead butterflies and birds. In the film’s final act, he is held under siege in a high-rise by the current Number One Killer, and the two eventually shoot it out in a boxing ring.
Things happen in Branded to Kill, but they have little meaning, and even as we’re watching each scene unfold we never have a precise sense of what’s going on. Gun battles are particularly perplexing: when Hanada fires a bullet we rarely see where it ends up, and the cuts between him and his enemies are so loose that we’re not even sure if all these people are in the same place and are actually shooting at each other, even if the plot (what little of it there is) would seem to suggest they are. Suzuki flits back and forth between action and Hanada’s encounters with women. If Hanada’s not out on another contract he’s yelling at his wife to cook him rice so he can become aroused, or he’s off gallivanting with the femme fatale Misako.
As much as it may sound frustratingly opaque and schizophrenic, the resulting work is far from a failure. Branded to Kill is evidence that a film doesn’t necessarily need a traditional-style narrative to succeed—it can operate on visuals alone and still provide the audience with a rewarding experience. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but Suzuki is a master at it. He is, for instance, an expert at blocking and framing a shot. Much as with his contemporary Kurosawa, you could pick out most of the frames in this film and use them as stills for a coffee table book. His cinematography is matched by the strange imagery he presents us with. Misako’s passion for birds and butterflies extends to where the walls of her apartment are covered with butterfly corpses, held upright with pins. After an encounter with Misako at her place, Hanada wakes to find himself in a bathtub full of dead birds, and later he hallucinates seeing birds and butterflies around him (they are imposed on the film with cel animation).
Combine Suzuki’s strange aesthetic with his distaste for continuity and the way he cuts through scenes with abandon, and the result is a film that is almost kaleidoscopically surreal. We are so wedded to the idea that films should focus on having a strong story that we are often willing to forgo style and flair—after all, very few comedies or dramas or action films actually have a distinctive aesthetic or design of their own. But Suzuki virtually throws the narrative out and focuses slavishly on making his film look good. He was famous for not completing scripts, not planning ahead, and leaving aspects of the film up to chance, sudden inspiration, or on-the-fly improvisation. Here, the protagonist’s kink for the smell of rice was, reportedly, an idea that came to Suzuki as he was filming on the set.
Despite that, Suzuki does leave some room for themes to emerge in the narrative. This is, for instance, a genre-bending film, and many writers have noted the various ways it explodes the action genre’s conventions. Here, the obsession with being the best there is at what you do is codified and rationalized in an absurdist manner—there is literally a hierarchy of assassins, ranked by number. While most spies/assassins are suave, Hanada’s approach to sexuality is abrupt: rough, dangerous, unromantic, and bizarrely dependent on food as a stimulus. It may come as no surprise that the film’s pulpy style and its satirical twist on genre conventions had an influence on Quentin Tarantino, who has been Seijun Suzuki’s most high-profile exponent in the West.
As a fever dream, I have to figure that Branded to Kill is almost unparalleled in film. Last time we discussed Orson Welles’ The Trial; the two are very much counterparts in as much as they both present us with a dream-like filmscape that is impossible to forget. Both are surreal, and both refuse to let us peek at their inner workings. But Branded to Kill, simply because of its recognizable subject matter—men with guns—is more approachable than The Trial. Branded to Kill is so open and free associative that we might be fooled into thinking that it was easy to make. I’d suggest the contrary is true: imagine how difficult it is to put together a film like this, a film that is so devoid of structure, and still have it be a success. How many works like this are actually passable? One in a hundred? A thousand? Suzuki’s effort would be remarkable for that reason alone; beyond that, it happens to be a brilliantly imagined film, one that is so textured that we are drawn back to it over and over in the hope that we’ll finally find a way to make sense of it all. It’s a tease. We never will—and that’s what makes it so good.