Tokyo Pulp: Seijun Suzuki's "Branded to Kill"

by Sten Johnson

Foreign films that reach an American audience are usually subtitled art house fare, sometimes offering the distorted sense that the average French filmgoer is more likely to dip into the rigors of high-canon Truffaut than the unexportable whimsy of, say, "Asterix: Mission Cleopatra." Similarly, the Criterion Collection's release of two titles from the prolific Japanese B-movie director Seijun Suzuki, "Tokyo Drifter" (1966) and "Branded to Kill" (1967), book-ended between works by Fellini and Buñuel, seemed to be an attempt to raise the currency of two aberrant curiosities to the status of international classics. Fortunately, Criterion offers the films as what they are—a rare glimpse into a little-seen foreign tradition of popular cinema. At first glance, the films appear to be idiosyncratic re-workings of the American gangster film, but much of their apparent eccentricity is grounded in quintessentially Japanese qualities.

Of the two, "Branded to Kill" is the more daring, offering what amounts to a sequence of brilliantly photographed set pieces. The film tells the story of the gangster Hanada, played by Jo Shishido, the Yakuza's "Number 3" killer, who reaches a career crisis when he fails a mission offered by the shadowy Misako, a woman who enigmatically displays pinned butterflies on the walls of her Tokyo apartment. In the film's most famous sequence a butterfly's wing, more pure image than symbol, blocks Hanada's sight, causing him to miss his target. His gangster colleagues retaliate, sending their "Number One" killer in pursuit of the shamed assassin. In an interview on Criterion's DVD, Suzuki humbly describes the production's ethereal atmosphere and its seeming irrationality as a calculated attempt to startle the viewer, to "make things interesting" within a genre framework. In spite of many critics' comparisons to avant-garde contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, Suzuki offers a more grounded, unselfconscious attitude towards his craft. His films, in their deliberate narrative confusion and startling visual devices, are closer in spirit to the flamboyant showmanship of American horror director William Castle, notable for low-budget shockers such as "The House on Haunted Hill" and "The Tingler."

Akira Kurosawa, often considered the Japanese director with the most "western" sensibility, applies a similar looseness to his own noir films. Without the narrative structures directly available from western sources, as in his "Macbeth" and "King Lear" adaptations "Throne of Blood" (1957) and "Ran" (1985), films such as "Stray Dog" (1948) and "The Bad Sleep Well" (1963) are often indeterminately plotted. Lacking the overt surprises and mechanically involuted plot twists of their American counterparts, the identity of key criminals is often known early on, with a loose and highly imagistic path winding its way to the film's conclusion. Particularly in "The Bad Sleep Well", suspense is generated by a series of unpredictable visual episodes, as characters presumed dead appear as startling phantasms on darkened Tokyo streets. To the contemporary viewer, the differences between the Japanese horror film "Ringu" and the blockbuster Hollywood remake "The Ring" offers a similarly telling study in contrasts. The original, a hit in Japan, is unapologetically lacking in exposition or character development, largely relying on an idiosyncratic story and sensory disorientation. The American version features a streamlined narrative, more fully-realized characters, and an ambitious attempt to fill in the numerous logical gaps of the original, some of which resist the attempts of the more conventionally minded Hollywood screenwriters. To many, "Ringu" remains the more effective film, with an unsettling ambience well suited to a genre that often trades in pure sensation.

Even with a domestic audience prepared for such stylistic quirks, Suzuki's peers at Nikkatsu studios found "Branded to Kill" too un-commercial and fired the director in spite of a dependable string of releases that included such inspired titles as "Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards" and "The Million Dollar Smash and Grab." Time, and a cult fascination with vintage genre filmmaking has enhanced his reputation, culminating in an overt tribute in Jim Jarmusch's 1999 "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai." In an unmistakable imitation of a scene from "Branded to Kill," Forrest Whitaker's assassin unscrews a drain pipe and stylishly shoots a victim washing at the sink above.

In another era, rising French directors Truffaut and Godard admired Americans such as Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks, whom they famously considered "auteurs", artists offering distinctly original, subjective visions. Yet, in spite of those filmmaker's merits, the truth was less elevated, especially in the case of Hawks, who bluntly likened his directorial style to pointing a camera at a horse. A geographical divide in sensibility offered an evocative, if distorted, image of rawly nascent, untutored American genius. Likewise, Suzuki's distinctly Japanese treatment of an American form offers distinct novelty to the western viewer, generated largely by an exposure to unfamiliar conventions and partially by the innovations of a creative journeyman.

© 2003 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.

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