Tuesday, July 31, 2018

#673: Branded to Kill

Directed by: SEIJUN SUZUKI
1967, TSPDT Rank #821

Seijun Suzuki spent the most of the '60s making low-budget yakuza films and erotic thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, the foremost producer of Japanese B-movies at the time. As the decade went on, his films became progressively more experimental, with less focus on plot coherency and more on stylistic flights of fancy, as Suzuki seemingly became increasingly bored with his material. Suzuki always insisted that his movies were made solely with entertainment, not art, in mind, but critics looking back at his work in recent decades usually conclude otherwise, due to Suzuki's meticulous approach to developing a unique visual style for each of his films.

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But while each of Suzuki's films are distinctive in their own way, Branded To Kill is possibly his most famous, as it is the film that got him fired from Nikkatsu and blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for ten years after he decided to sue his former studio. Filmed in black and white, ostensibly an attempt by Nikkatsu to reign in Suzuki's wild use of color, Branded To Kill starts out as a film about intrigue in the world of assassins, but soon becomes a bizarre examination of the masculine urge for power and the intertwining nature of sex and violence. Suzuki follows Japan's No. 3 assassin (Jô Shishido) into a downward spiral of madness and identity crisis, as his desire to become No. 1 consumes him.

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Much has been made of the main character's rice fetish (which Suzuki said was conceived as a way to make the character more quintessentially "Japanese") and the incoherent plot turns, but at its core, this is an early example of a psychological thriller. Pacing and storytelling were not talents of Suzuki's, but Branded to Kill is still a fascinating and exhilarating watch, even if it's uneven at times. However, for those interested in Suzuki's other work, I recommend Gate of Flesh and Fighting Elegy over this one. I suppose it's fitting that Branded to Kill would be my No. 3 Suzuki film.

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