When I first saw Seijun Suzuki’s experimental 1967 film Branded to Kill (殺しの烙印), I hadn’t seen any of the typical yakuza movies of the 50s and 60s it was riffing off of. Now I’ve seen more than I can count so I decided to revisit this New Wave landmark of Japanese cinema.
In my 2014 review, I talked primarily about the film’s postmodernism and how its commentary on action and suspense films functioned as a reflection of Western films of the genres. The same love triangle system, for example, is apparent—the male protagonist torn between the pretty available girl and the mysterious femme fatale.
This time it struck me how much this triangle supports the central idea of human nature being a conflict between the bestial and the sublime. It reminds me of Vertigo more than anything—where Midge is the more familiar, talking frankly with Scottie about bras like sex has all the glamour of feeding chickens and pigs, versus the dreamlike Madeleine representing an ideal of beauty.
The protagonist’s wife in Branded to Kill, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), is almost always naked, or in one scene wearing only fur and heels, and is always energetically rushing about their house. She tells her husband over and over that the two of them are merely beasts. Misako (Annu Mari), on the other hand, the mysterious woman who hires him for a contract killing, is rigorously stylised—a raincloud follows her most of the time and the screen becomes littered with butterflies reflecting the dead little beasts she keeps pinned to the wall.
And she almost never moves, unlike the constantly scampering Mami. Joe Shishido as the protagonist, Goro, is perfect in the role, his trademark, weirdly artificial cheeks implying the attempt to effect a triumph of ideal aesthetics over nature.
What does it mean that he’s the number two hitman in the world? It’s a mark of professionalism, something that should elevate him above the mere animal, but it’s in a fundamentally savage field. There’s also his absurd obsession with rice. When Misako is quietly seducing him, he weirdly starts begging her to give him rice, his fundamental animal appetite somehow aroused by her careful artificiality. Of course he keeps asking her to undress but, cruelly, he doesn’t see her naked until she’s seemingly captured by the enemy.
Although she wears a cool smirk the whole time, he immediately proclaims she’s been raped, yelling the claim over and over as he kneels before the footage of her. As though he compulsively construes the situation as loss in a fundamental struggle.
Watching the movie now, I feel much more a sense of it as dreamlike than subversive. All of those yakuza movies Suzuki made for Nikkatsu at a breakneck pace, churning out multiple movies in the same year, with many of the same plot elements, sets, and actors mandated again and again. It must have become ritualistic and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn the career did very strange things to his dreams.
Branded to Kill is available on The Criterion Channel.
Twitter Sonnet #1281
A severed fraction turned divided whole.
The present cat controls arithmetic.
Entire worlds could fill the magnet bowl.
The sneezing sun expels the turmeric.
A finished film rewards reflected shows.
Another cat replaced the merry girl.
At home, the book became a list of rows.
A pebble sure was swapped for rarest pearl.
The amber push enclosed a winding tree.
Electric tracks conduct the music slow.
The empty hive admits the captain bee.
An island rock begins to softly glow.
Diverting paths convert the space to blue.
A paper swamp arrests the flowing glue.