Branded to Kill

Sunday, 30 September 2007

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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