Branded To Kill, 1967, directed by Seijun Suzuki, written by Hachiro Guryu, Takeo Kimura, Chusei Sone, and Atsushi Yamatoya.
Any country with a developed film industry makes two types of movies: export films designed with world markets in mind, and native films that are not intended to leave the country (and usually don't). My introduction to the latter category was S.P.Q.R. 2000 ½ Anni Fa, a completely unwatchable Italian comedy starring a badly dubbed Leslie Nielsen, which I saw over Christmas of 1994. I don't think anyone wept bitter tears when S.P.Q.R. didn't get a U.S. theatrical release (in fact, I'm sure Nielsen was thrilled); it was pretty clearly designed to stay in Italy.
In a case like S.P.Q.R., the sheer awfulness of the movie explains its lack of foreign distribution, but a movie doesn't have to be bad to be stuck in its native country. As I write this, Wedding Crashers is still seeking distributors in most of Asia, despite its spectacular domestic box office. The point is, any country has a film industry that non-natives rarely get to see, and Japan is no exception. John Zorn writes that Branded to Kill was his introduction to Japanese pop cinema, the kind that never made it to the States. I guess that makes it mine, too, although I wasn't surprised by the existence of this kind of movie the way he seemed to be. Once you see S.P.Q.R., you're not really surprised by the existence of any kind of movie at all.
Branded To Kill is a product of the Japanese studio system, which seems to have been a lot like the U.S. one; directors and actors were under contract to studios and they churned out movies at an astonishing rate. It was Seijun Suzuki's last studio film, following a ten year period in which he averaged 3.5 movies a year (he directed 7 (!) movies in 1963). After this movie, he was fired by Nikkatsu studios for making incomprehensible, unprofitable movies. I don't know if Branded To Kill was profitable or not, but it certainly takes more than one viewing to comprehend. And I'm not talking about comprehending a deeper meaning, I'm talking about comprehending the basic events of the plot. It's a yakuza film, starring Jo Shishido as a hit man named Hanada. I think of him as "the Chipmunk Killer," though, because Shishido had some rather dramatic plastic surgery on his cheekbones early in his career, with the following results:
From some angles he looks normal, but from others he seems to be chewing on Kleenex. Hanada is the Number Three killer in the Yakuza (they're ranked, presumably by U.S. News and World Report). Early in the movie he kills numbers Four and Two. But after a botched hit, the Yakuza sends Number One to hunt him down. If that sounds like a pretty generic crime movie plot, it is. What makes the movie interesting are the bizarre details to the story.
For one thing, Branded To Kill is a fetishist's wet dream. The movie is crawling with people who replace their desire for one thing with something else. Hanada has an obsession with the smell of freshly boiled rice, and is constantly demanding that people prepare rice for him so he can smell it. Suzuki says in an interview on the disc that he thought this would be a good way to show that the killer was Japanese: he doesn't like the smell of steak or hamburgers but of rice. But he takes it for granted that the character would be obsessed with the smell of some type of food. I don't know if that's typically Japanese or not, but it's certainly weird. Hanada is also a fan of non-traditional sex; early in the movie is a five minute sequence of him sleeping with his wife in which variations of this shot:
are intercut with variations of this shot:
This movie has more sexual positions in that sequence than anything else I've seen except Wild At Heart. With a wife like that, you'd think he wouldn't stray, but he seems to find his wife a little too crazy. So it's no surprise that when he meets a nice, normal girl named Misako, he falls hard for her. They meet cute: he's on the way home after killing six or seven people and his car breaks down. She's driving a convertible with the top down in the rain, and offers him a ride. Here she is, looking as happy as she ever will:
To me, the expression on her face is a warning sign. More worrying is her dashboard ornament:
Yes, that's a dead bird with a spike driven through its neck, hanging from her rear-view mirror. Not only does Hanada not get out of the car when he notices this, he can't get her off his mind, and when she shows up offering him a job, he takes it. That's the job he blows, in a pretty literal illustration of the butterfly effect (a butterfly lands on the barrel of his rifle just as he pulls the trigger, causing him to miss). And things go downhill from there. Here's the most tender moment in his relationship with Misako:
That's Misako's apartment, where the walls are decorated with pinned butterflies. Hanada keeps the gun trained on her while he takes off her shoes, then her stockings. Unfortunately, she gets her hands on the gun then and tries to shoot him. She misses. You would think the (at that point) second-highest ranked Yakuza killer would try to avoid a woman who'd just shot at him, but not Hanada; instead, he watches her put her stockings back on through a keyhole:
So yeah, this film has a kink or two. It's no secret that Japanese sexuality is pretty distinct from the American variety, but I haven't seen many movies that reflect that.
It's a mistake to focus much at all on the relationship between Hanada and Misako, though; this isn't a love story, and it's not what you'd call character-driven. It's also not what you'd call plot-driven; the story is pretty ridiculous. The movie's worth watching almost purely for its style. The stills above give some sense of the sort of late-sixties cool the movie exudes, but they can't convey the experience of Suzuki's truly unique and bizarre cinematic grammar. By grammar I mean the set of conventions he uses to convey information beyond what you see on screen. Everyone's familiar with the Western conventions, even if they don't know it: a slow push into someone's face usually means "this character is making an important decision," a dissolve indicates the passage of time, and so on. Most of these things are understood more or less subliminally, but when you run into a filmmaker who observes none of them, the results can be pretty jarring. I'm not sure if this is unique to him or if it is part of a national style, but I suspect it's just him, since this movie got him fired.
He does have his own set of rules, however, and although it takes multiple viewings to figure them out, it's kind of a fun project. He likes to rotate the camera around a subject in 90 degree increments when they're anguished, for example. He uses non-diagetic sound and shots that are unrelated to the action of a scene to convey subjective impressions. You can see this in the sex scene between Hanada and his wife; although the sudden cuts to shots of Misako make it look like she is watching, the sound of rain from earlier in the movie and the way Hanada covers his wife's face makes it clear that he is imagining he is sleeping with Misako instead of his wife. But for every technique that works, or makes a loopy kind of sense, there's one that doesn't, like mixing cell animation with film for one 20-second sequence, like so:
I'd be inclined to forgive this technique (it's certainly visually striking in a graphic-design kind of way) if it weren't for the fact that he only uses it once in the whole film, and it doesn't really tell us anything that hasn't been established over and over again by that point. I could be mistaken, but it also seemed to me that the last third or so of the movie (after Number One appears) was much less visually interesting, and had a lot of shots that I actively disliked: unmotivated camera moves, shots with peoples' heads cut out of frame, and at least one plot point (Number One seeming to burn his own face with acid in the bathroom for no reason) that I have been trying unsuccessfully to sort out since I saw the movie. I don't think the style is in service of anything throughout the film, and I think the style sort of falls apart towards the end. Without that, there's not much left to enjoy.
But when it is good, it is very very good, and some of Suzuki's techniques look better now than they would have in 1967. Take this, for example; Hanada is slowly crawling under a car that he's pulling forward as he moves toward some gunmen:
In the shot above, which is quite long and moves forward with the car, Seijun Suzuki has just invented the first-person shooter. I also loved the sequence where Hanada kills four diamond smugglers: the diamonds are being smuggled inside of glass eyes. Glass eyes that are being worn at the time. Anyway. This movie is a bit of work to decipher, but it's interesting. I'm curious to find out the extent to which Suzuki's techniques were picked up by other Japanese directors. And if you want an introduction to a kind of movie you've never seen before, you could do worse than to rent this. Until there's a Criterion edition of S.P.Q.R., of course.