Japanese director Seijun Suzuki had been on my list to catch up on for some time now, long before his death in 2017. He’s cited as an influence on Tarantino (but who isn’t?), Jim Jarmusch, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Takeshi Kitano, and surely Takashi Miike, both in style and career arc. Suzuki started directing primarily B-movies that were, as I am led to understand, fairly formulaic gangster flicks for the most part, growing increasingly strange and iconoclastic up until the 1967 effort Branded to Kill, which we shall speak of today, which is now regarded as a cult classic but was such a financial disaster that the lawsuit laiden fallout saw Suzuki blackballed from the industry for 10 years. We’ll go on to discuss the very loose sequel, released some 34 years later, Pistol Opera, his penultimate film.
Branded to Kill
Branded to Kill started life as another B-movie for the Nikkatsu Company, but the suits weren’t all that enamoured with the script. So, they gave their go-to director Suzuki free rein to do whatever he wanted to, and seemingly what he wanted to do was melt the brain of anyone wandering into a cinema expecting a film that had any sort of conventionality to it. I say this in the way of pre-amble to excuse any recap not making a lot of sense, as, well, it doesn’t.
Joe Shishido’s Goro Hanada is the number three ranked hitman in Japan, and in a roundabout way agrees to help a friend with a job that turns out to be disposing of a body for the Yakuza that turns, for no readily explicable reason, into a running series of firefights with other gangsters, including at least one other highly ranked hitman. For all the chaos, the main plot driver coming from this sequence is Hanada’s car breaking down, leading to him being picked up by an exceeding strange femme fatale, Annu Mari’s Misako Nakajo, a woman with a deathwish and is as into dead butterflies and birds as much as Hanada is into the smell of boiling rice, which is to say worryingly obsessively.
She offers him an almost impossible to execute multi-target contract, that against all odds, and in some instances the laws of physics, seems to be going well until a freak accident sees Hanada kill a bystander, which is apparently a big no-no in the ranked murderer league, meaning that there’s now a target on his head that the legendary number one killer, played by Koji Nanbara, is coming to collect. It’s up to Hanada to survive, and perhaps defeat the odds and claim the number one position for himself.
Now, said like that, it’s more or less coherent, which I do apologise for, as that’s entirely misleading. This film is bonkers, the likes of which I’ve not seen since Operation Kid Brother. I’ve carefully left out the parts where, for example, Hanada makes an escape by randomly jumping out of a window to land on a passing hot air ballon, or the multiple times items of jewellery prove to be life-saving bullet deflection devices, or, indeed, the entire final act where in order to mess with Hanada, his new mortal enemy simply moves into his apartment and lives with him for a while. It is bananas.
Now, the weird thing for me (and apologies for the opinion spoilers), despite Pistol Opera doing much the same schtick, I really enjoyed Branded to Kill in a way I did not for its sequel. I don’t know if it’s the charming jankiness that comes from the low budget origins, or if it’s the hypnotic qualities of Shishido’s cosmetically enhanced cheeks, making him look like a psychotic hamster, or if it’s the film’s dedication to zagging where every bone in your body expects it to zig.
It’s 100% certifiable absurd, perhaps parodic nonsense, of course, and there’s more than a few elements of this that ordinarily would just be straight up gratuitous, particularly everything involving Hanada’s clothing averse wife that’s maybe only not entirely indefensible as porn because Hanada’s often huffing boiling rice at the same time, giving these scenes a veneer of implausible deniability.
I’m certainly not going to call Branded To Kill good, in any way. But I can at least tell you that I laughed like a drain, a plumbing item renowned for laughing heartily and frequently, throughout this film. Am I laughing with it, or at it? There’s a question, but perhaps the answer is not as important as the laughter itself.
But I’m definitely laughing at it.
Despite Suzuki’s assertion that the ending of Branded to Kill was ambiguous as to the fate of Hanada, and that he didn’t get to be Number 1, that being the point, a loose follow-up was made in 2001’s Pistol Opera, in which Hanada (played by Mikijirō Hira, though Suzuki had wanted Joe Shishido to reprise his role) is now a has-been with the honorary ranking of “Number 0”, reflecting his former status as Number 1.
Hanada is mostly irrelevant, though, as Pistol Opera is about a current assassin, Makiko Esumi’s Miyuki Minazuki, Number 3: Stray Cat. Like Hanada, her purported profession seems to matter little as the membership of the Guild of Assassins seems to spend most of its time attempting to kill one another, which seems a poor use of resources at best. To this end, Miyuki is approached by Sayoko Uekyo, her “agent”, with a contract to kill Number 1: Hundred Eyes. There then follows a turgid two-hour experience of watching a bunch of barely connected things happening, to people I care nothing about, with a “misdirect” about Number 1’s true identity copied from Branded to Kill.
Listen, I try to be as open as I can to different types of films. I want to experience new things in film. I try hard not to be dismissive. But I also know, from prior multiple experiences, that I really dislike avant-garde cinema, and I hate Pistol Opera so much. It’s garbage, and I struggle to find anything positive to say about it.
Seijun Suzuki said that he didn’t care about story, that all that mattered was that a film was entertaining. Now, maybe he was working with a definition of “entertainment” markedly different to mine, but he’s zero for two for me right now.
In interviews the director stated that he wanted to surprise the audience with his films, and I would say he’s done that here – I certainly wasn’t expecting a score containing a steel drum band, nor a European guy wearing a leather duster, and seemingly not hugely familiar with either Japanese nor, for whatever reason it’s there, English, as one of the rival assassins. (Presumably there is a reason for the inclusion of several lines of dialogue in very stilted English for a number of “characters”, but I simply don’t care what it is.)
There are some visuals – both settings and compositions – that I appreciate a good deal, or would if they were in more or less any other film, or in service of anything at all, and I acknowledge that his choices are deliberate: that, rather than being incapable or ill-equipped, Suzuki had a definite vision, albeit double vision, as Pistol Opera is in so many ways a colour retake of Branded to Kill. I just wish it was a vision that I could get on board with in any way at all. It’s wilfully weird and impenetrable (and once or twice creepy and inappropriate), and it’s really, really not for me.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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