Branded to Kill

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #38: Sei­jun Suzuki’s Brand­ed to Kill.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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