Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill Hanada (Jo Shishido) has everything: he makes good money, he enjoys a life of luxury, and he has a good-looking and sex-hungry young wife. He's also the third-ranked assassin for the Japanese underworld, No. 3 Killer. One day he is given a ride by an exotically beautiful young woman, who hires him to kill a business associate; but on the day of reckoning the hit goes bad - in the form of a butterfly landing on his rifle, barely spoiling his aim - and an innocent woman is shot instead. This is a mortal sin in his world, and as a result of his carelessness that world starts falling apart. Suddenly he himself is the target of professional assassins, and must rely on his wits and his skill with a pistol to survive. But will these be enough to survive an attack from Killer No. 1?

Branded to Kill is something of an odd duck in the genre of Yakuza (Japanese organized crime) films. While most such movies are stylish, this one is ultra-stylish - it was, after all, 1967; and while Tokyo might not have swung as wide as London, it still kicked, baby. Yakuza heroes are often noble, but stylish; this hero is certainly stylish, but doesn't come anywhere near being noble. His greatest source of pleasure, in fact, isn't his exciting job, his sexy wife, his sports car, or his money; it's the fleshy smell of boiling rice.

Branded to Kill is a visually stunning movie, with plenty of experimentation in its camera angles, details, scene juxtapositions. The gunfights are intense, the characters starkly portrayed. The film takes place against a black-and-white backdrop of modern urban Japan; the city itself is almost like an extra character. And every scene gives off a radiance of 60's cool, from Hanada's little sportscar to his wife parading around wearing nothing but the fur coat she just purchased using her husband's blood money. (We get to see his wife's behind several times in the film.)

It is, in fact, anything but normal; and this is why its director, Seijun Suzuki, was fired from Nikkatsu studios as soon as his bosses got a look at a print. The movie doesn't stick to any sort of convention; it veers left when the viewer expects it to go right. Nikkatsu and other studios had had plenty of success throughout the 1960's with various Yakuza pictures - but this was something they just didn't know what to do with. Suzuki himself has said in interviews that he was just tired of the same old formula film, and decided to create something completely out of the cookie-cutter mold. Well, he succeeded.

Branded to Kill is a fun, stylish gangster film of the type that Hollywood could never, ever create, not because of money or political correctness, but because it would never occur to them to do so. Too bad! But then, there's only one Jo Shishido, and one Seijun Suzuki.

Branded to Kill - 1967
Direction: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Hachiro Guryu, Takeo Kimura, Chusei Sone, Atsushi Yamatoya
Art Direction: Sukezo Kawahara
Music: Naozumi Yamamoto
Featuring: Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari, Koji Nambara, Isao Tamagawa