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BRANDED TO KILL (KOROSHI NO RAKUIN)(director: Seijun Suzuki; screenwriters: Hachiro Guryu/Takeo Kimura/Chusei Sone/Atsushi Yamatoya; cinematographer: Kazue Nagatsuka; editor: Mutsuo Tanji; music: Naozumi Yamamoto; cast: Jo Shishido (Hanada Goro), Mariko Ogawa (Mami Hanada), Mari Annu (Misako), Koji Nambara (No.1), Isao Tamagawa (Michihiko Yabuhara), Hiroshi Minami (Gihei Kasuga); Runtime: 91; Nikkatsu Films/Janus; 1967-Japan)
“If you get off on strange films, then this one should be right up your alley.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If you get off on strange films, then this one should be right up your alley. It was thought to be so bizarre that Nikkatsu studio fired the director Seijun Suzuki for being too far out. Suzuki, born in 1923, had made 42 films for Nikkatsu and was lauded for his unique visual effects. But things changed by the mid-1960s in Japan and his films were losing out to TV in popularity and weren’t making the coin expected, so the studio head, Kyusaku Hori, canned him for making unconventional films that don’t make sense despite their successful partnership over all those years. In return, Suzuki successfully sued the studio but was blackballed in Japan and wasn’t able to make films there until over a decade later — the first being Tales of Sorrow and Sadness in 1977.

The black and white photographed “Branded to Kill” starts off being your regular, straightforward stylish mobster film noir, about hit men in Tokyo. But it soon takes a few odd twists and turns into a chilling nightmare of kitsch noir that hardly makes sense, yet it was witty, original, and made for a fascinating watch. That it was all pointless might be besides the point. It was different and it was fun, as the director is quite willing to push the envelope further than others in the name of entertainment.

The boss in Hanada Goro’s yakuza gang ranks his hit men by numbers. Hanada (Jo Shishido-renown for his puffy cheeks, enhanced even further by collagen implants) is ranked as No. 3, while the legendary No. 1 has not been seen by any of the others and is called a “phantom.” Things are going well for the somewhat efficient hit man No. 3, as the work is steady and he recently married a sexy young wife, Yami (Ogawa). One of Hanada’s quirks, is that he has this urge to shout out at his woman of choice to bring him some “boiled rice” just before they have rough sex.

In the opening scene, on the drive into Tokyo from the airport, the taxi driver asks Hanada to do him a favor and get him back into the yakuza business. The first job they have together is to protect a man in a business suit who is being driven to an undisclosed location. But when he’s attacked the driver turns out to be useless, as he’s an alcoholic unable to even stand up straight. Hanada himself goofed up and thought one of the assassins after the shootout was dead when he was only playing possum, and the client had to shoot him himself and thereby had to protect himself despite hiring protection.

On the way home from this near disaster assignment Hanada’s car breaks down in the rain and he’s offered a ride by the beautiful femme fatale, Misako (Mari Annu), who has a dead bird hanging by a pin from the rear window of her convertible. When she takes Hanada home some time later, there’s a collection of dead butterflies in her apartment that overwhelms the place and makes it look surreal. Misako requests that he take on her contract for a killing, as she makes Hanada an offer he can’t refuse. Hanada forgets his hit man vows to be inhuman and falls in love with Misako. On this very important and difficult job he carries out for her, a butterfly lands on his rifle scope just as he pulls the trigger on his mark. This causes a botched job — which results in the mob ordering a death sentence for the screw up.

Hanada stylishly knocks off those who come after him in a cool and calculated manner, as the camera is never steady and the cuts are rapid and jarring. There are some nifty killings on display, as on one attempt on his life he assassinates No. 5 by setting him on fire.

Hanada decides to shoot his wife Yami. Yami, in the meantime, tries to kill him when she sees that he plans to leave Tokyo, but only wounds him. Before Hanada kills her and her head swirls around in the toilet bowl, she tells him the boss is involved in a botched diamond deal and wants to kill the three men who took him off for some of the diamonds by pulling a switch. The boss also wants to kill the one Hanada failed to execute, the foreign investigator who is looking into the smuggling operation. Hanada got the custom agent, the gem cutter, and one of the smugglers — an optometrist, whom he ingeniously shot in his eyeball as he was able to cut a hole in the pipe in the floor below and got his target when he was washing up in the sink.

There are lots of frantic gunfight action scenes with bullets flying all over the place, which adds to the confusion of the story. The disoriented Hanada is falling into a surreal nightmare over the probability of his death being very high, all leading to the great finale. This is where No. 1 (Nambara) first introduces himself to Hanada and gives him a polite warning that he will kill him. There’s one totally off the wall scene where they have guns pointing at each other in Hanada’s apartment and in this Mexican standoff, they end up eating and going to the bathroom together and even walking around the apartment arm and arm; and, eventually sleeping with their hands tied to the bedposts. Hanada receives packages from time to time of a movie showing Misako being tortured by the mob. This leads to the showdown between No. 1 and No. 3, which takes place in an empty boxing gymnasium. The final shot is of the empty ring. By this time Hanada has completely lost his senses to booze and women and his ability to defend himself, as the story also became too bizarre to rationalize. But, in this case, I wouldn’t say that necessarily was such a bad thing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”