Review Date: 3/11/17
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Cast: Joe Shishido, Anne Mari, Mariko Ogawa
"Booze and women kill a killer."
"Branded To Kill" is a hefty dose of surreal insanity that finally got renegade director Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu Studios. I can't blame them, as the film is completely incomprehensible. Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the #3 ranked killer in the Japanese underworld. A fateful meeting with a morbid temptress named Misako (hypnotic Anne Mari) leads him to take on a difficult assignment, which goes awry when a butterfly lands on his rifle. By failing to hit his mark he becomes a target himself, and the #1 killer has his eyes on him. Determined to become #1 himself, Hanada and #1 wage a war of attrition against each other and shoot it out in a gymnasium.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white, and the bold cinematography evokes the noir aesthetic of the 1940's. The action scenes are as shockingly violent as they are absurd, and Hanada comes across as a very smooth, hip, and larger than life killer. The characters are beyond strange and not very likable, which is what gives the film its psychedelic edge. Hanada has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice while his insatiable wife (Mariko Ogawa) sleeps with his boss. The soulless Misako has a death wish and surrounds herself with mounted butterflies and dead birds, which is a bit of a buzz kill whenever Hanada wants to get it on with her. The other underworld killers have their own particular quirks as well. Shishido gives a wonderfully unnerving performance as a man pushed over the edge of sanity by circumstance, and his rash behavior makes him difficult to relate to. Anne Mari is a fascinating femme fatale whose emotional range rivals that of a mannequin, while the psychotic Mariko Ogawa is just simply bat-shit crazy. The sex is just as violent and outrageous as the killing action, which must have been extremely controversial when the film came out.
The story starts out promising enough, but as soon as Hanada meets Misako, it goes completely off the rails and never returns. Perhaps that echoes the element of chaos that women bring into men's lives which can lead them to ruin? While Hanada's interactions with Misako are uncomfortably bizarre and intense, the protracted showdown between him and #1 that dominates the entire second half of the film is an absurd spiral into madness that seriously challenges the viewer's patience and tolerance. It's definitely an unconventional film that solidifies Suzuki's attitudes towards The Establishment, and as such, it's hard to classify it as "good" or "bad." Like many art films, it's best to just sit back and enjoy the scenery and raw emotion.