Branded to Kill (1967)
In the mid-1950s, Suzuki was one of several directors, among them his "Noberu Bagu (New Wave)" colleague Shohei Imamura, who joined the long-established Nikkatsu studio in hopes of advancing their careers. Over the course of the next 10 years, Suzuki cranked out dozens of low budget crime and action pictures, developing his increasingly inventive visual style with little studio interference. But he ran afoul of studio bosses when he took this story of a rice-sniffing hit man from a standard gangster thriller into the realm of mystical, nightmarish surrealism.
Suzuki once stated that his movies made no sense and made no money. In this case, Nikkatsu was quick to agree with his assessment. Deeming the finished product incomprehensible and badly botched, the studio fired him and shelved the picture. The action was met with much hostility by critics, students and other industry workers. Suzuki brought suit against this breach of his contract, and in 1971 a court ruled in his favor. But by that time, the damage had been done to his career. From an output of three to five releases per year, he dropped to only three credits in the six years following Branded to Kill, one of those for a TV movie and another a single episode of a TV series.
His influence, however, was not lost on future film artists, such as Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino. Film buffs today are still enthusiastic for the experimentation and stylistic flourishes Suzuki brought to the screen with his most frequent collaborators, art director (and sometimes screenwriter) Takeo Kimura and cinematographers Shigeyoshi Mine and Kazue Nagatsuka.
"I made movies to satisfy the studio's production schedule," Suzuki said. "To see that those movies are received enthusiastically overseas today is something I never dreamed of." Even compared to his other work, Branded to Kill is a wild ride, packed with sex, violence, suspense and an absurdity that could well be taken as film noir parody. The oddball humor is perhaps unintentionally advanced with the casting of the outrageously chipmunk-cheeked Jô Shishido (Cruel Gun Story, 1964) as the assassin with a fetishistic tendency to stop whatever he is doing to take in the aroma of steaming rice. But that's only one small element in a story that encompasses a femme fatale with a penchant for dead birds and butterflies and a murder committed through plumbing.
"It was surreal without my intending it to be," the director said late in his life. (He died in 2017 at the age of 93.) "I didn't try to make it surreal, but that's how people see it. I consider that a triumph."
"Seijun Suzuki: The Chaos of Cool" Criterion Collection featurette, 2017
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Producer: Kaneo Iwai
Screenplay: Hachiro Guryu, Takeo Kimura, Chûsei Sone, Atsushi Yamatoya
Cinematography: Kazue Nagatsuka
Editing: Akira Suzuki
Art Direction: Motozô Kawahara
Music: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Jô Shishido (Gorô Hanada), Mariko Ogawa (Mami Hanada), Annu Mari (Misako Nakajô), Kôji Nanbara (No. 1)
By Rob Nixon