Review: Branded To Kill (1967)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

Seijun Suzuki’s recent movies are beautiful to look at but make little narrative sense and seem to lack formal unity. By their end, films like Pistol Opera tend to lose the viewer in a mish-mash of colour, camera movement and choppy editing, with character, plot and theme long since discarded. If the style was more sophisticated, in the sense that a formal system was revealed up front and sustained throughout, there’d be fewer issues with the jettisoning of story elements. Unfortunately, chaos and abstraction seems to take hold and as a result the complete experience is a bit of a let down. Finishing a movie with shallow, empty stylistics–no matter how showy or exuberant–is no suitable replacement for the natural progression of a creative work to a fine point over time.

None of this would be an issue had Seijun Suzuki not earlier made astonishing movies like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.

We all like to see filmmakers make more movies as they grow old, giving us more opportunities to see their works in the theatre – especially in those cases when many of us were not even born during the heyday periods of those filmmakers. Sadly, it’s rarely the case that the films from the later generation stand up to the pictures made earlier. Kurosawa’s best Samurai movies were produced well before Ran.

The same is true of Suzuki. For those interested in movies that break conventions and shape new ones, the films Suzuki makes today do have to be seen, but the work he accomplished in the 1960s is so magnificent–so hip, inventive, striking, brilliant and daring–that his major works from the period have to be seen to be believed.

Cleverly conceived action scenes are at the centre of Suzuki’s work from this period. Gunplay in Branded to Kill is calculated and heavily organised, process-driven in a way reminiscient of Jean-Pierre Melville (only cranked up) and as violent as any take Takeshi Kitano has ever printed. Regular viewers of spy and crime movies will note some of the many tricks and devices that have been approproated from here, e.g. shooting someone up a drain pipe. While the ideas supporting the action are brilliant, it’s the way Suzuki embellishes them that catches the eye. Unpredictable disjunctive editing, especially across the film’s first few minutes, keeps the viewer guessing and working hard to understand the plot. Deep in the background tiny figures scurry about, their importance underscored when they start firing off shots into the foreground. Overlayed hand-drawn images suggest the uneasy state-of-mind of the film’s protagonist. In one shot I particularly love, a tightly framed close-up remains fixedly focused on the backdrop of a rough sea rather than on the face of a master assassin, just stretching out the mystery of his identity a little longer.

Sound is probably the major aspect of style to stand out. Suzuki utilises a staggering array of sound elements to lend the film a reckless and raw energy. An interior monologue steers the plot, but it’s supplemented with very taut and blunt dialogue scenes, entire conversations held in voice-over (putting what we see and what we hear out of synch), and at least one extraordinary moment where dialogue appears to be spoken but is in fact delivered as a voice-over. Afterwards it’s difficult to recall for any given moment if characters are visibly speaking or not, such is the overall effect of sound out of whack with image. There’s more. Sounds from off-screen interact with the image. There is a general absence of an atmosphere track, a sort of minimalism that heightens our awareness of foley and prop noise. Symbolism emerges through the soundtrack as well, with flapping butterfly wings and the sound of heavy rain evoking thoughts and feelings in a highly stylised manner. A catching tune is utilised throughout.

There’s even a touch of comedy to enjoy in this great movie, towards the latter stages especially when Japan’s two best killers find themselves getting very close indeed.

It’s a good thing Madman has put out a local version of Branded to Kill. The previous edition that was available here, from Second Sight films in the UK, was a a bit of an early-wave DVD with poor shadow detail, a lot of pixelisation, artefacting and sound popping.

9 number one killers out of 10.
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