There are certain motion pictures that are so weird, so outlandish, so crazy, that they take you by a storm, even when you’ve been forewarned. Branded to Kill is one such film. I had read beforehand that the film was described to be “dream-like” and a bit weird, but even that did not prepare me to the tour de force that the film ended up being. For the first half an hour, I was just confused. I couldn’t get a hold of the movie at all. It consistently perplexed me. Things were happening on screen on a hectic pace, stuff was being dumped in exposition, there were murders and guns blazing every other minute, Joe Shishido was shown being turned on by sniffing cooked rice, etc. But I couldn’t really understand what the hell was going on. Even the vague sense of plot I had managed to attain still felt elusive and confusing. And then, in the middle of the big action sequence that filled the screen with violence and frantic editing, it suddenly finally dawned on me what I was experiencing. It was pure Dada in celluloid film form. Absurd, chaotic, surreal and avant garde cinema in its purest, raw form. I realized Branded to Kill was a piece of art wrapped around a forgettable B-list double feature hitman movie. I immediately fell in love with the film.
Before we go any further, I need to address the elephant at the room. Namely those goddamn cheekbones. I had to google Joe Shishido to find out what the hell was up with his face and turns out his cheeks are augmented. As in, he deliberately had plastic surgery to make them bigger! And to be fair, it seems to have been a good call as his career apparently got quite a boost from his new chipmunk look. In a way, I can even see the appeal of his bloated face. On certain angles, they do give him a very tough and charismaticly hard look and if there’s one thing that’s great for your career in show business, it’s having an iconic appearance. But God, it’s such a confounding experience when you notice them for the very first time, this film needs a trigger warning for cheeks. Really, those things of his, they’re like two magnets. Your gaze just gets pulled towards them even when you try not to look. They just keep haunting and distracting you to no end.
As already mentioned, Branded to Kill is really out there. The plot of the movie doesn’t really matter. It’s entirely superfluous, and doesn’t really hold any real interest to you beyond the basic set up. It’s more of an excuse for all the ensuing madness. Under another director, the film would have ended up being a very forgettable and cliché hitman flick that nobody would probably remember. But under the Seijun Suzuki’s direction it became a master piece of cinema history that was so ahead of its time upon the film’s initial release that very few people genuinely got it. What makes the film so brilliant is the way Suzuki tells his story. He creates a heavy artistic atmosphere that progressively becomes more and more dream like with this beautiful use of simple aesthetic tricks and offbeat story beats. I especially loved the symbollic use of butterflies, like in Annu Mari’s apartment orthe animated segment where starlings, butterflies and rain fill the screen as Joe wanders around the city in a daze. Both provided a striking visual stimuli that enhanced the spellbinding allure of the film. Even the sex scenes and nudity end up being very art noveau and out of this world. And let’s not forget the assassinations, which are so over the top that it borders being ridiculous were it not for the fact that they are in an art house gangster film. I can’t make up my mind whether the best hit is the one where he kills a dentist through a sink by screwing open a pipe and just putting a gun inside the pipe and fires without even aiming, or the one where his master plan was to just walk in murder everybody in a room and then jump on a giant floating air balloon and float away to safety.
Then there is the antagonism between Joe’s character and Number One, the phantom killer, that just takes film up another notch in the absurdity. If you were expecting a normal, bloody and gun smoke heavy confrontation between two top ranking hitmen, you will be sorely disappointed. Rather than just killing Joe, Number One chooses to start a nerve racking siege game. He painstakingly torments and harasses Joe, who has retreated to his apartment for security, until the entire match of nerves culminates bafflingly in a temporary truce that involves Number One moving in with Joe, leading to scenes like where the two cohabit the apartment as room mates, now linking arms and walk everywhere together in this fashion, even the bathroom. You wouldn’t believe half the things happening in this film if you didn’t watch it for yourself.
It’s that type of completely ou-of-the-box thinking and plot twists that brilliantly capture the eccentric and creative avant garde appeal of the film that makes it so irresistible. This film practically has indefinite rewatching value and shelf-life.