Watching a Japanese B-movie was a great way to get back into the swing of Criterion reviews. This is the first Seijun Suzuki film I’ve seen, but it reminded me very much of Samuel Fuller, and it is even a bit like Shock Corridor in its portrayal of psychological trauma. The protagonist is Hanada, the third best yakuza assassin, and the film sticks with his ironic disintegration into madness throughout. At first the film is quite hard to follow, mainly because it is often difficult to determine whether we’re in his subjective frame of mind or whether actual plot-oriented action is occurring. The irony kicks in because the assassin is convinced that he’s going to win and become Number 1, though he obviously becomes less and less stable and capable as the film progresses. In retrospect, the washed-up assassin we meet in the beginning of the film is a foreshadowing of Hanada’s fate.
Suzuki’s dramatic cinematographic stylings offer profound and sometimes startling character insights; often serving as a reflection or counterpoint to Hanada’s self-absorbed obliviousness. All of the other characters have no existential qualms, they know exactly where they stand in relation to the world they inhabit; so Hanada’s ambition is almost aberrant in this environment. The tepid screenplay dialogue becomes polysemous and intriguing in this context, as no one seems to know what the other is truly saying. There is no trust and little understanding between the characters, so every attempt at communication is fraught. There is also a darkly comedic tone to the plot that alternates between being noticed by the characters and completely ignored by them. Number 1 is the only character who truly knows exactly what is going, even unto meta-cognizance, as if he knows that he’s in a film and what the director is trying to do with it and him.
It seems that the film has little to say as an ultimate moral; there are no sympathetic characters, so their deaths don’t mean much to the viewer, except in the aforementioned darkly comedic manner. The environment in which they lived was too violent and chaotic for any sort of sustainability or continuity, they’re all living on borrowed time. The frequent salacious and violent power-struggle sex acts provide another data point to strengthen this claim. It is certainly a much more accurate Japanese film culturally, instead of offering stylized, cliché or stereotypical portrayals more in line with Hollywood’s MO, Branded to Kill is vulgar in the word’s most literal and complimentary sense.