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  • Ravi Swami

"Branded To Kill", Dir: Seijun Suzuki, 1967

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Japanese director Seijun Suzuki's 1967 "Yakuza" film, "Branded to Kill" reunites him with the iconic surgically enhanced Joe Shishido, this time in the role of contract killer "Goro Hanada", hired to escort a gang boss to safety from his enemies.

In the process, he gets drawn into a subterfuge where it appears that it is he - "Number 3" in the rankings of Yakuza - has a price on his head from the mysterious "Number 1", or presumed top-tier yakuza who pulls strings hidden from view.

Along the way he narrowly avoids getting killed by henchmen of the rival yakuza who are after the gang boss, a diamond merchant accused of cheating his rivals with counterfeit gems, and getting romantically involved with a strange young woman, Misako, whom he picks up one rainy night in his car.

To complicate matters, Hanada is married to Mariko, and although the film has many quite erotic scenes featuring Hanada and Mariko in their modern apartment, Mariko has been seduced by the Yakuza boss who has recruited Hanada and this puts her loyalty in question.

She becomes aware of his obsession for the mysterious and enigmatic Misako, played with particular intensity by the otherworldly Anna Mari, and is driven by jealousy to try and kill Goro.

Misako appears to have a death wish where she expresses her desire to also eliminate men who have abused her and her apartment is full of dead butterflies pinned to the walls - butterflies and falling water - expressed by the shower in Hanada's apartment and rain - form two potent and recurring images in the film, perhaps representing, in the latter case, a need to cleanse himself of guilt and to form a more healthy relationship with his wife, who, following their torrid couplings, describes them as "beasts", and the butterflies may be representative of the inevitability of death, captivity or Misako's male victims.

Misako hires Hanada to kill an unnamed foreign man who is her next victim, at an appointed time and place but the plan goes awry and Hanada accidentally shoots and kills an innocent woman who happens to be passing by, thus breaking his yakuza code of only targeting other yakuza or criminals and she tells him that from that point on, his days are numbered.

The dawning sense that he has been set up by the mysterious "Number 1" and that he will be killed drives him to confront the gang boss, relying on his ingenuity and skill as a marksman to gain the upper hand, after he discovers that Misako has been captured and tortured to death, via a film projector that has been placed in his apartment.

Without revealing the conclusion, this film has all the hallmarks of Suzuki's freewheeling, innovative and experimental approach to film-making and a pop-surrealism that marked many of his films, such as "Go To Hell, Bastards" and "Youth of The Beast", and here he ramps up the style to include animated graphic overlays on some scenes to represent Hanada's downward spiral into obsession for Misako featuring butterflies and stylized rain, so much so that it resulted in him being expelled from Nikkatsu, the producing studio, who felt that he had gone too far into obscurantism for what was basically one of their stock in trade film-noir.

There's an undeniable quality to many of these films that feel like adolescent male fantasies revolving around guns and shoot-outs, with often exaggerated and gruesome deaths - eg in the film Hanada dispatches a sharpshooter hiding in what looks like an abandoned WWII concrete pillbox by tossing a can of petrol into it and igniting it with gunfire, resulting a shot where the victim exits screaming and in flames - though Suzuki depicts these sequences in a perfunctory way, perhaps using a second unit director, and possibly merely to satisfy the studio, distributors and the appetites of the largely male audience of the Yakuza genre, while his real intent is to tell a story in his own way.

What struck me, and is something that I haven't seen pointed out in other reviews, is that there is a sequence where Hanada asks the question "Who is Number One !?" before deciding that it he who is Number One and that he must kill the yakuza boss in order to claim that title.

The combination of the stylish visuals and surreal narrative brought to mind the 1960's British TV phenomenon "The Prisoner", where Patrick McGoohan's character is on a quest to discover who is "Number One", and it's no stretch to compare McGoohan's secret agent character with Shishido's suave hitman, both plunged into bizarre scenarios, and they both share the same year of production, 1967.

Of course, these kind of visuals were very much part of the zeitgeist of 60's TV and film in particular, from the British TV series "The Avengers" to films like "Modesty Blaise" (1966) so it's conceivable that Suzuki was merely taking a cue from these examples to craft his own take in the yakuza genre, and the end result is truly fascinating - as to which came first, "Branded to Kill" or "The Prisoner", who knows, instead I'll leave you with a picture of Anna Mari as "Misako", whose beautiful but unnerving countenance in the film is likely to give you nightmares.


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