Thursday, February 23, 2017

Psycho-Noir Overdrive :: A Memorial Tribute to Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill (1967)


Opening rather bluntly with the Nikkatsu Studio logo front and center accompanied by the sounds of automatic gunfire and a ton of bullet ricochets, bringing a reflexive duck from the audience, a swanky theme song soon takes over as the action picks up when master assassin Hanada (Shishido) and his wife, Mami (Ogawa), are picked up by his old partner, Kasuga (Minami), and driven to a bar to meet with their boss, Yahumara (Tamagawa). And while the lady orders a scotch, Hanada requests a pot of boiled rice. And while waiting for this peculiar order to be delivered, Yahumara reveals Hanada’s next assignment: He’s to help escort an important client from the coast to Yahumara’s estate. Seems simple enough but things are never easy if a master assassin’s involvement is deemed necessary. Then, his rice arrives and Hanada embraces the pot but he does not eat the contents. No, he huffs on the vapors emanating from it. Here, Mami, who seems awfully chummy with Yahumara, explains and complains about her husband’s weird hang-ups and fetishes; seems Hanada has a major jones for boiled rice vapor that borders on orgasm whenever he inhales it. Okay, then...



Later, as Hanada and Kasuga meet at the assigned car for the escort job, Kasuga apologies, saying this is really a one-man job but he’s lost his nerve and the boss no longer trusts him. Inside the car, they find their driver dead in the back seat. Not a good omen. Disposing of the body along the way, the conversation soon turns to the Top Ten Master Assassins. Ranked by skill, Hanada currently ranks third on that list. Kasuga used to be ranked but his problem with alcohol has left him a wreck and ruined his reputation. Now, topping this list is the ‘Phantom Killer’ whose true identity is unknown, but Hanada figures he’s the one who killed the driver, which rattles Kasuga something fierce, leading to longer draws off an ever present bottle of booze.



After picking up the client, and surviving a few false alarms, they stop at a service station so Hanada can phone in a progress report. Not recognizing his wife’s voice on the other end, turns out Mami and Yahumara are in bed together (-- in a *ahem* 'biblical sense'). Reporting so far so good, Hanada is cautiously optimistic but this doesn’t last very long. By now, Kasuga is so plastered Hanada must take over the driving duties. And as they exit a tunnel, they run right into an ambush! And as the client takes cover in the backseat, his protectors spill out and return fire. Slapping Kasuga silly to calm him down, Hanada demands covering fire while he tries to outflank the ambushers. Ashamed by his cowardice, Kasuga obeys as Hanada circles around and cuts down two of the assassins. Then Kasuga spots Koh -- one of those Top Ten Assassins, musters his courage, and charges after him. As they exchange gunfire, Koh smiles sadistically while Kasuga foams at the mouth. (No. Seriously.) And when they finally crash into each other, guns clicking empty, Kasuga falls dead while Koh solemnly takes off his jacket, lies down, and pulls the coat over his head and expires, thus applying his own death shroud!





With that, Hanada pulls the client out of the now useless car. He's alive, but not all that impressed with his escort. Telling him to sit tight, Hanada sets out to steal the ambushers’ car. When he finds it, he hears more gunfire, heads back, and finds the client alive and well and surrounded by three more dead assassins -- each with a single bullet hole right square in the forehead. (Wow. Methinks this client doesn't really need protecting.) And even though all seems quiet now, Hanada realizes that Sukara -- another ranked killer, and Koh's frequent partner -- must be nearby.


Spotting several men running around a nearby concrete bunker, Hanada uses the stolen car to run two of them over. But Sukara safely retreats into the bunker and returns fires. Taking a gas can out of the trunk, Hanada storms the bunker, tosses the can inside and fires at it, which ignites the gas into some impromptu napalm. And as the bunker rapidly burns, Sukara, engulfed in flames, keeps on shooting, bursting out of the door, screaming, a raging fireball, and with a rifle still in hand, charges across the open field toward his target, refusing to give up on his mission. Hanada watches this macabre scene with little concern as the client waits patiently until Sukara almost reaches them before putting a bullet square in his forehead. (Again: Wow.) And after all of that, well, the rest of the trip to Yahumara's place is pretty uneventful...


It was by whim and chance only that I stumbled upon the truly bizarre, insanely violent, yet unbelievably beautiful cinematic world of Japanese filmmaker, Seijun Suzuki, who passed away this week at the age of 94. Spotting the Criterion DVD for Branded to Kill (1967) at my local brick and mortar video store a long, long time ago because of its wildly colored case, I also noticed a very familiarly jowled character on the cover. No one else had cheeks like that, thought I; and so, as I yelled out, "Hey! That's Captain Joe!", my outburst brought concerned stares from several other customers, who quickly gave me a wide berth down the aisle.



Who's this Captain Joe? Well, those of you familiar with your Mystery Science Theater will know who I'm talking about as Shishido played the hard drinking, hard fighting, "He tried to kill me with a forklift" big-cheeked commander of the Bacchus III. Clad in his leather jumpsuit, he sweated a lot and kept Star-Wolf Ken in line during the two classic Fugitive Alien episodes. Anyhoo, I had never heard of this film, or had a clue who this Suzuki guy was at the time, but when I flipped it over and read the synopsis that claimed "The wildly perverse story of the yakuza's rice-sniffing Number Three killer is Suzuki at his delirious best" you could call me intrigued. Further reading found the film was so bizarre and messed up the director got fired by his studio after making it. Now who in the hell could pass that up? (Actually, in truth, they had me sold with that whole rice-huffing super-assassin bit.)


It seems to me these days people tend to throw around the word ‘visionary’ or ‘genius’ a little too easily when talking about newly discovered filmmakers -- and yeah, I’m one of the worst culprits, labeling the latest unearthed flavor of the month as the most brilliant thing to ever happen to cinema. Seijun Suzuki, however, rightfully deserves the moniker of both genius and visionary. His cinematic career began after serving in the military during World War II when he failed his entrance exams to Tokyo University and enrolled in film school instead, which netted him a job as an assistant director at Shochiku -- a position he seemed to be stuck in indefinitely. A self-described “melancholy drunk” who found humor in the darkest of things, Suzuki was ready to quit the business altogether until Nikkatsu Studios finally re-opened after the war in 1954, who quickly pilfered A.D.s from several rival studios and promoted them to directors to churn out product for their B-Picture units. His first film for Nikkatsu, Minato no Kanpai: Shōri o Waga Te ni (1956), was a brainless comedy vehicle for pop singer Kō Mishima but the majority of his output focused on crime and gangster films, which the studio churned out at least twice a week and all of them followed the exact same code of honor and revenge formula.


Here, Suzuki toiled under this rigid structure, assigned films that he couldn’t refuse to do for if he did, he would most probably lose his job. However, soon tired of the formula, the director started to modify the scripts and tinker with the production designs. Sometimes he ignored the scripts altogether and focused on the look of his cinematography, lighting, and set designs; something he did have control of. The results were a series of hyper-violent and surreal exercises in style. As Suzuki scholar Tony Rayns put it so beautifully: “His films increasingly shirked genre conventions, favoring visual excess and visceral excitement over a coherent plot and injecting madcap humor into a normally solemn genre, developing into a distinctive ‘voice’. In [Suzuki's] own eyes, the visual and structural qualities of his '60s genre films sprang from a mixture of boredom ('All company scripts were so similar; if I found a single line that was original, I could see room to do something with it') and self-preservation ('Since all of us contract directors were working from identical scripts, it was important to find a way of standing out from the crowd')." And boy did they ever.


The avant-garde director’s breakout hit was probably Youth of the Beast (1963 -- which also starred Shishido, a frequent collaborator with the director), which saw a cop go undercover and pull a Red Harvest on rival Yakuza gangs. But the director claims it was The Bastard (1963), where he first teamed up with production designer Takeo Kimura, where Suzuki began “to work on ways of making the fundamental illusion of cinema more powerful.” And these twos collaboration's probably reached its zenith with Gates of Flesh (1964), which concerns a brothel of prostitutes trying to survive in post-war Japan that is a truly stunning piece of cinema.


But while he developed a small but rabid fan base in Japan, this didn’t exactly translate into box-office dollars, which soon drew the ire of Kyusaku Hori, the head of Nikkatsu, who hated Suzuki’s films because, to him, they made him no money due to the fact they made no damned sense. And with the release of Tattooed Life (1965), the studio issued their first warning “for going too far.” Suzuki basically ignored this and after the release of the “slightly” decadent Carmen from Kawachi (1966), the studio slashed the budget for his next film as punishment. Again, this didn’t seem to matter as the end result, the truly amazing, Tokyo Drifter (1966), still managed to be a brazen, pop-art musical extravaganza on a shoestring. With that, Nikkatsu drew a line in the sand, reduced the budget to his next feature even more, relegating it to black and white film stock, and Hori warned the director get his act together and make something more commercially viable or face the consequences. Suzuki’s answer to this threat was Branded to Kill, arguably his masterpiece and personal stamp on a career that pokes fun at and skewers the usual yakuza formula -- and borderlines as a parody of Suzuki's own over the top style as evidenced by the first twenty minutes of the film recapped above.




Yep. All of that and we ain’t even a third of the way in yet as Hanada’s car breaks down after safely delivering the client. A girl in a convertible stops to give him a lift, and even though they’re in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, she doesn’t seem to mind the top’s down. She also doesn’t seem to mind the dead bird with the spike impaled through its neck hanging from the rearview mirror. Told she has a death wish, Hanada is obviously smitten with this morbidly morose girl. Then, we segue from the rain shower to a bathroom shower, where Mami is just finishing up her bath. In the kitchen, Hanada is bogarting some boiled rice fumes but even this cannot shake his thoughts away from that creepy Goth-chick. Needing a distraction, he seeks out his wife for some consensual but very violent sex all over the apartment. And after brief time-out for some more rice-huffing, Mami berates him for this hang-up, which prompts more violent sex until these two finally wear each other out.



The next morning Hanada gets another assignment from Yahumara: three targets that need to be taken out quick. Here, we see Suzuki’s hand in the execution of that order. The first target is taken out from a perch behind a giant, automated billboard for cigarettes, allowing Hanada a cleverly camouflaged field of fire whenever the giant zippo opens up, which he exploits splendidly. His next target is an optometrist, who we find rather gleefully pulling the glass-eye out of one of his patients. Meanwhile, Hanada is in the basement of the building, taking apart the drain pipe to the sink above. And when the water turns on, he fires up the pipe, hitting the doctor, who was leaning over the sink, right square in the head. Now, the third target, a diamond merchant, is taken out the old fashioned way when Hanada just barges in and blows him away. His subsequent escape on a balloon, however, is anything BUT conventional.





Returning home, our master assassin finds Mami has been spending all his payoff money a little too extravagantly. And as he demands she return a new mink coat, the doorbell rings; it's the Goth-chick, and when Mami sees her she instantly thinks Hanada has been screwing around on her and gets hysterical. After locking Ms. Fickle-Butt in the bedroom, Hanada invites the girl in. Her name is Misako (Annu) and she wants to hire him to kill a foreigner. And it'll be a tough job, too, she says, with only a three-second window of opportunity -- but that's why she came to him, since Hanada has a rep for pulling off the impossible. When asked who wants this man dead, Misako answers she does. And so, Hanada accepts and confesses his fascination with the morbid girl, and then passionately embraces her; but while Misako is indifferent to his affections, Mami angrily watches this display, clawing and squealing at the glass bedroom wall.



Cut to the next day, where we find Hanada waiting in ambush, training his rifle scope on the man Misako is walking with until she steps to the side -- the signal to strike. But right as he squeezes the trigger, a moth lands on the barrel, blocking the scope. With the target obscured, Hanada’s shot goes wild and hits an innocent bystander instead. And as the intended target runs away, Misako produces a pistol and fires three useless shots at him before they both hightail it out of the area.


Apparently, by killing an innocent bystander, Hanada has irrevocably broken the Assassin's Code of Conduct; and when word of this botch-up gets out, his ranking will be long gone, and surely, one of the others will kill him for besmirching the honor of their profession. When the two split-up, as Misako intones he will surely die, Hanada at first laughs at the thought of dying but he doesn't laugh for long. Returning home, and despite their earlier spat, he finds his wife in a frisky mood. They go at it again but his head just isn't in it. And while Mami urges him on, saying they're both sexual freaks -- beasts that need each other, he ignores her, picks up the phone and tries to arrange a flight out of Japan until the heat's off. After a quick explanation, his wife freaks out, pulls out a gun and shoots him. (Okay ... she's buck-naked. Where the heck did she hide that gun?) After Hanada slumps over, Mami, still naked, sets fire to the apartment and then runs out the front door screaming -- and, yep, still naked





Luckily, Mami's bullet hit him right in the belt buckle (-- so three guesses as to what she was probably aiming for!). The fire is soon out of control, so Hanada stumbles out into the night in some serious pain. He runs into Misako (-- a little too conveniently, methinks), and she takes him back to her apartment, where the walls are covered with hundreds -- if not thousands of dead moths and butterflies, each with their very own stick-pin. Needing a fix, he begs her to boil some rice, but she refuses. When he threatens to kill her, she knows the threat is empty -- since they haven't slept with each other yet. Hanada is willing, but fears he might wind up pinned to the wall like the rest of her specimens (-- you and me both, brother). Following her into the bedroom, Hanada is appalled to see her bed is covered with even more dead bugs. He retreats but then watches her undress through the keyhole, and then -- frankly, I'm not really sure what happens next -- but someone shoots her lovebirds, and more dead bugs are crushed. Hanada leaves, but then comes back, and then forcefully strips Misako until her death fixation finally scares him off again. He also keeps tinkering with his gun, a gun that will no longer fire (-- read between the lines, here, folks).





Anyways, Hanada keeps running away only to keep coming back to kill the girl. But try as he might, he just can't pull the trigger. And to be fair, she's having the exact same problem trying to kill him. Then Hanada runs off one more time, down a dark alley, where he is assaulted by animated images of birds, bugs and rain. Haunted by these visions, Hanada calls his boss. When Mami answers the phone again, this time, Hanada doesn't say anything and hangs up. (Uh-oh. Busted) He then heads over to Yahumara's apartment and finds Mami inside. Once she sees him, she screams and then promptly passes out. And when she wakes back up, Mami begs for her life, swearing it was Yahumara who ordered her to kill him, and tries to buy some time by telling Hanada the three people he killed were all part of a rival diamond-smuggling operation. Also of note, Mami says Misako was in on this, too; and the botched target was an investigator looking into things Yahumara didn't want to be seen.


Claiming she's said too much already, Mami begins to cry and sob -- but these are crocodile tears that quickly dry up. Switching tactics, she strips and tries to seduce him, but having seen and heard enough, Hanada shoots her. Wounded, Mami crawls into the bathroom, where Hanada follows and puts another bullet in her head -- right through her lying mouth, then leaves while part of her skull and scalp spins around the flushing toilet. Then, while waiting for Yahumara to return home, Hanada finds a bottle of Napoleon brandy and finishes it off before he hears someone unlocking the front door. When no one comes inside, Hanada cautiously opens the door -- but then the weight of Yahumara's dead body forces the issue; and one should note the body has a very familiar bullet wound to the head. Hanada quickly looks outside but there is no one else around.



Returning to Misako's darkened apartment, Hanada turns on the lights, which triggers a movie-projector and the flickering images shows a naked and bound Misako undergoing some kind of torture. As the interrogator angrily asks why she didn't kill Hanada, when she doesn't answer, a blow-torch moves closer to her flesh. Watching, Hanada begs the moving pictures of Misako to tell him where she is and he'll come rescue her. When the interrogator keeps asking why she failed, Hanada reads her lips that admit it's because she loves him. But this admission doesn't save her, and soon the heat grows too intense and Misako dies. The film then abruptly changes to a pier near the harbor, and the same angry voice tells Hanada that five killers will be waiting for him there tomorrow afternoon to finish this nasty business.


The next morning, Hanada heads to the waterfront early to scout it out and then retires to a bar, where he receives a phone call. Recognizing the caller as the client he helped escort earlier, Hanada asks who he really is. But the mystery client just pokes fun at Hanada for all the mistakes he's made and says figure it out yourself. Which he quickly does: for if Hanada is the Number Three Assassin, and since he burned-up the Number Two Assassin (Sukara), that means his tormentor can only be one person: the Number One Assassin -- the dreaded Phantom Killer.



Next, at the set time, Hanada heads back to the waterfront and spots two of the promised assassins. Earlier, he set up a block and tackle and, using the ropes to pulls his car forward, he crawls along underneath it for maximum protection. He finally gets close enough and blasts the killers dead. Spotting another car with two men fast approaching, the ingenious assassin heads for cover while his car is peppered with bullets. Not realizing that Hanada jumped in the drink and swam around behind them, they keep on shooting as he takes them out with extreme prejudice (-- well, if you can do anything with extreme prejudice clad only in your wet skivvies). Happy to have survived so far, Hanada realizes there's still one assassin left out there -- and it's the most dangerous one of all. Number One (Namabara) finally reveals himself, saying Hanada shouldn’t worry, swearing he won't kill him now because he owed a debt for protecting him earlier. But the score is now even; and as he leaves, Number One warns when next they meet it will be for the last time!


Returning to Misako's apartment, as Hanada gathers up his arsenal, the phone rings; it's Number One, encouraging him to stay inside where it's safe. Suddenly, a shot rings out and the lamp near Hanada's head explodes! Number One then torments him further, saying he could be anywhere. With that, the siege is on -- indefinitely, apparently, and who knows how long the haggard and slowly disintegrating Hanada has been holed up in the apartment from scene to scene. He catches brief glimpses of the other assassin, but by the time he gets his gun aimed, the killer is long gone. More time passes and Hanada has to rig up a noose that will choke him whenever he dozes off so he won't fall asleep. As the tormenting phone-calls continue, Hanada starts to crack, crying for Misako, wallowing around on her bed of dead bugs. Soon out of food, Hanada makes a break for it; and after going a perceivable safe distance, he stops at a restaurant. But just as he's about to take a snort-full of rice, the waiter says he has a phone call. E'yup; You-Know-Who tells him to get his butt back to the apartment so they can end this in a civilized way.




When Hanada returns, the shit finally hits the fan: After plowing into each other, Number One's gun is planted on Hanada's forehead, while his gun is stuck in his tormentor's gut. So, we have a Mexican stand-off in the middle of a Japanese Gangster movie; and according to the chivalrous code of assassins, they'll have to trust each other until one of them let's his guard down. And then the movie goes down a strange and uncharted road as their pistols are set at an equal distance between them, so no advantage can be had. Hanada is amazed that Number One is so disciplined that he can sleep with his eyes open -- and is willing to soil himself instead of going to the bathroom. When the doorbell rings, the two lock arms, answer it together and accept a parcel earmarked for Hanada. More time passes, the men get hungry and decide to go out to eat. Agreeing to leave their weapons behind, they lock arms again and head to a restaurant, drawing plenty of curious stares from passers by. But Number One eats nothing as Hanada gorges himself, and while he's eating, Number One excuses himself to the bathroom (-- Waitasecond? I thought he didn't need to use the bathroom. Hanada, you idiot!) Realizing his mistake too late, Hanada rushes back the apartment and finds Number One's gun is still there. But the gun proves empty except for a note that's jammed into the clip that reads to either meet him at a nearby gym at 1am, sharp, to settle things or be a coward and stay away. Pissed, Hanada crumples the note and declares he will be the new Number One.


With some time to kill, he finally opens that package delivered earlier and finds a roll of film inside. Spooling it up, he sees more footage of Misako, bandaged from head to foot but still alive! Then, Number One's voice-over confirms she is alive and he'll show where she is -- if he comes to the gym. Thus, that night, following his usual pattern, Hanada stealthily sneaks into the darkened gym early -- and it's not so much a gym, but an auditorium with a boxing ring in the center. Checking his watch, Hanada's sweating so bad he can barely hang on to his gun. It's almost time, so he takes off his shoes and puts them into a shaft of light as a decoy, and then slips into the shadows ti wait in ambush. And waits. And waits. And then he waits some more.



Nearly two hours pass but nothing happens, and the stress of it finally breaks Hanada, who starts giggling, relieved, and heads toward the empty ring. Realizing he forgot to put his shoes back on, when he goes back for them they're gone! Panic sets in as a voice comes over the loudspeaker, proclaiming, "This is how Number One works. He tires you, then he kills you. Your destiny is closing in." Charging into the ring, Hanada defiantly bellows a challenge. And as he continues to rant, we spot him strapping something around his head. Then something moves in the shadows; a shot rings out; and Hanada falls to the mat. Moving into the light, Number One smiles the smile of final victory -- a little prematurely, turns out, as he spies Hanada's trademark sunglasses lying on the canvas, and a busted headband studded with metal. Seems Hanada knew his rival's style, too; and knowing he'd be shot in the head, protected himself. Despite a nasty cut and bruise on his forehead, Hanada springs to action and blows the very surprised Number One away.




Proclaiming himself the new Number One, Hanada stumbles around the ring, and though the assassin's bullet didn't penetrate his skull, there is some definite brain damage here. And as his ravings continue, he spots someone coming in, silhouetted in the entrance. Completely unhinged, he shoots at whoever it is, and when the body falls into the light we see it was Misako! Not even realizing what he's done, Hanada continues on raving until he falls over the ropes and disappears into the darkness. Then all is silent. Is he dead? No one can say.





The first time I watched Branded to Kill after purchasing it on that fateful day the film rendered me speechless until I was able to muster a simple "What the hell was that?!" But this was no vindictive epitaph or indictment, but rather an excited call for more of the same! I've now sat through Branded to Kill at least six more times and I still haven’t quite gotten my head around all of it. The plot I finally got after the third screening but the intoxicating visuals still leave me a bit punch-drunk and sozzled. It would probably take me a year and countless more paragraphs to decipher all the imagery and symbolism in this movie: from Misako's morbid surroundings; to Hanada's obsession with rice; to his sudden bout of impotence brought on by the botched assassination -- suddenly, he can't fire his gun, or when he does it's out of bullets until he eventually rediscovers his manhood with a hard-on of hot lead; and then the last half hour of the film is a train-wreck of strange story twists, rapid editing, and innovative shoot-outs where all you can do is watch and boggle and try to absorb everything.






The Criterion release of Branded to Kill includes an interview with Suzuki, where he reveals after the film was finished Nikkatsu, through Hori, told him “His films didn't make any money and they didn't make any sense and ‘You're fired’." And so, after 12 years and nearly forty films for the studio, Branded to Kill was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. After his dismissal, Suzuki sued for breach of contract. And during the trial, it came out the only reason the director even made the film was due to another production falling apart and, pressed for time with a release date looming, the studio turned to the veteran director to get something slapped together fast and cheap, so they really had no leg to stand on when complaining about the results on film. And after a lengthy court battle Suzuki eventually won his case and settled with the studio. Sadly, even with the vindication of victory, the director was unofficially blacklisted and would not direct another film for nearly ten years.


As a (premature) career capper, Branded to Kill was one helluva of a send off though; a personal stamp on a career that poked fun at and skewered the Yakuza formula -- and borderlines as a self-parody of Suzuki's own over the top style. In the same interview on the DVD, Suzuki denies he was ever trying to do anything odd, or avant-garde, but just trying to make his films more fun and enjoyable. But while it may not have been his intention to make these truly unique and inspired movies, the end results speak for themselves. Hell, don't take my word for it. Suzuki’s films are meant to be seen and experienced first hand, not read about or dissected with reviews like this. And I encourage you all to go out and find a copy of this movie, or Tokyo Drifter, or Gates of Flesh. (And if Criterion, or Arrow Films, or anybody else is listening out there, a Suzuki boxset is something that needs to happen.) Then prepare yourselves to be assaulted by things you've never seen a movie do before, and watch with mouths agape, just like the rest of us did.


Branded to Kill (1967) Nikkatsu / P: Kaneo Iwai, Takiko Mizunoe / D: Seijun Suzuki / W: Hachiro Guryu, Mitsutoshi Ishigami / C: Kazue Nagatsuka / E: Akira Suzuki / M: Naozumi Yamamoto / S: Jô Shishido, Kôji Nanbara, Anne Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Isao Tamagawa, Hiroshi Minami
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