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Indescribable, extremely adult actioner got its director fired for making it

August 26, 2009

By Jimmy Gillman

Jimmy Gillman
Branded to Kill
Nikkatsu; 1967; 91 minutes; Not rated, but contains violence, crude behavior, nudity, sexuality, adult themes and situations; Directed by Seijun Suzuki; Starring: Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Koji Nanbara, Mari Annu and Isao Tamagawa; Screenwriter(s): Hachiro Guryu, Takeo Kimura, Chusei Sone and Atsu







The effects of the 1960s were worldwide, influencing everything from pop music to politics, from civil rights to fashion, and from religion to the arts. Those influences also had a profound impact on the movie industry, as filmmakers from east to west found new and dynamic ways to infuse their films with a wider cinematic range, pushing the envelop through more realistic (and often contrary) forms of expression that dug deeper into many taboo subjects.


Those influences made their way to Japan, where a cadre of filmmakers overcame often hostile Japanese studio executives opposed to abandoning traditional cinematic forms to create their own version of the “new wave,” a style that fused certain elements of post-war American cynicism and French existentialism in films that more closely reflected and symbolized contemporary Japanese society.


These directors frequently risked being fired (many actually were) for their desire to make films that departed from the rigid confines of the jidaigeki and gendaigeki structures. One of the most radical and talented of these directors was Seijun Suzuki, whose energetic and nihilistic style over 50-plus films never reached greater heights than it did in “Branded to Kill.”


Part film noir, part satire; part soft-porn and yakuza drama, “Branded to Kill” is a violent, sexy and sometimes vulgar affair, driven by an extremely complicated plot populated by irredeemable characters and a murdering anti-hero. It’s a boldly confrontational film; a modern, funny and stylishly composed affair full of satire and fury with enough irreverent touches to make it nothing less than out wonderfully wild.


Admittedly, the story is a bit difficult to follow, concerning itself with the tribulations of a professional assassin known as “Number 3,” and with what happens to him after he becomes involved with a mysterious woman.


That woman enters into a contract with him to have someone killed, but he bungles the assignment and mistakenly kills an innocent bystander instead. That makes Number 3 the hunted one, but part of the film’s paradox (and parody), as well as its allure, comes from the fact that our protagonist is really more concerned with losing his Top Ten ranking as an assassin than the prospect of being killed (one of the film’s many in-jokes is the way in which other professional assassins also fret about their respective rankings).


Yet it’s more than a turned-inside-out-narrative that makes “Branded to Kill” something truly out of the ordinary. Throughout the film Suzuki displays many ingenious filmmaking techniques and his ability to effectively blend disparate styles into something unique to create a film that’s literally bursting with energy and inventiveness (you can almost “see” the collaborative impact of those behind the camera at work in virtually every scene).


“Branded to Kill” is definitely not for all tastes; it’s challenging, frequently off-putting and determined to be unconventional at every turn. Those qualities only occasionally dampen the final result, but it’s difficult not to appreciate Suzuki’s desire to do something truly different. And it’s precisely these differences that make it stand out from the crowd and of interest to students of film and action aficionados.


A showcase of a kind that proves directors like Quentin Tarantino and Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai, both of whom count among its admirers and acknowledge Suzuki’s influence on their own films, were far from the first filmmakers to explore this kind of territory and push the limits, “Branded to Kill” is, if nothing else, bold and teasingly bombastic.




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Film Grading Key

A+ Can't get any better

A Outstanding

A- Superior effort

B+ Very good

B Good

B- Still worth watching

C+ Strictly iffy

C Waste of time

In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

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