Branded to Kill: Studio Battling and the Comic Book Lunacy of Seijun Suzuki

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Branded to Kill (Suzuki, 1967)

How do you describe a film like Branded to Kill? No really how do you do justice to the story of a boiled rice fetishising Yakuza hitman in a surreal absurdist gangster film? With great difficulty I can tell you… like many great cult films it is wracked by offscreen battles and larger than life characters (on and off screen).

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Seijun Suzuki: Japanese cinema’s mad auteur.

Suzuki and Nikkatsu

Now when discussing  Branded to Kill it is near impossible to not speak of it’s mad auteur Seijun Suzuki (real name Seitaro Suzuki), born in Nihonbashi, Tokyo in 1923 Suzuki had become one of the resident directors for the Nikkatsu company. While at Nikkatsu, Suzuki primarily worked on a string of B-movies (often themed around the Yakuza) between 1956 and ending in 1967. Throughout the 60s Nikkatsu had developed it’s own distinctive style of the Yakuza genre often known as “Nikkatsu Noir”. This period in which Suzuki worked in is generally regarded as the Golden Age of Nikkatsu films (who later went on to make Roman Porno films, literally Romantic Pornography films as a means to compete with Televisions popularity at the time), during his time with Nikkatsu Suzuki had developed his own style of filmmaking also. His films were beginning to develop a cult following of their own, in particular amongst students and teenagers, in 1963 Suzuki released his “breakthrough” film Youth of the Beast which Suzuki regarded as his first truly original film. Suzuki began developing his auteur status, he began shaking of the genre conventions and focused primarily often excessive visuals, visceral excitement, rather incoherent plotlines and adding madcap humour into what was often a rather solemn genre of film. British film critic Tony Rayns describes Suzuki’s process as “In his own eyes, the visual and structural qualities of his ’60s genre films sprang from a mixture of boredom (‘All company scripts were so similar; if I found a single line that was original, I could see room to do something with it’) and self-preservation (‘Since all of us contract directors were working from identical scripts, it was important to find a way of standing out from the crowd’).” Over his time with Nikkatsu Suzuki began to encounter more like minded individuals to work with, his production designer was most important to him as he describes “The Bastard was the real turning-point in my career, more so than Youth of the Beast, which I made just before. It was my first time with [Takeo Kimura] as designer, and that collaboration was decisive for me. It was with Kimura that I began to work on ways of making the fundamental illusion of cinema more powerful.” As before a cult following continued to grow around his films, however he had not endeared himself to Nikkatsu studio president Kyūsaku Hori. With his film Tattooed Life (1965), Suzuki was given his first warning for “going too far”. Suzuki responded with Carmen from Kawachi (1966)  after which he was ordered to “play it straight” and resulted in having most of his budget being taken from him on his next film. Despite (or possibly due to) the adversity he faced from the studio he created his unique, colourful pop art masterpiece Tokyo Drifter (1966) which also predated the later yakuza films for their social commentary.

Branded to Kill

After Tokyo Drifter was set to work on his latest and most infamous work Branded to Kill (1967), conceived by Nikkatsu as a standard Yakuza hitman B-movie it was to adhere to their usual standard B-movie shooting schedule: one week for pre-production, 25 days to shoot, and three days for post-production. The budget was set to around 20 million yen. However just before filming began head office deemed the script to be “inappropriate” so Suzuki as contract director was brought in to rewrite the script. Kyūsaku Hori explained to Suzuki he had to read the script twice before he understood it, Suzuki as a result suggested for them to drop the script but was ordered to proceed. Suzuki worked on the rewrite with frequent collaborator Takeo Kimura and six assistant directors (including Atshushi Yamatoya who plays Killer Number Four in the film). The eight worked under the pen name Hachiro Guryu (Group of Eight), Nikkatsu brought in Joe Shishido as it’s leading man as they were grooming him as a star at the time (he had previously worked with Suzuki in Youth of the Beast resulting in his tough guy image). Nikkatsu specified to Suzuki that the film had been written with Shishido in mind, after his first choice of Kiwako Taichi for the female lead fell through he cast Annu Mari a rising actress in Nikkatsu. For casting Shishido’s character’s wife they had to cast outside the studio with Mariko Ogawa as all the Nikkatsu actresses refused to get nude on set.

Suzuki cemented his auteur status by his rather unusual work methods, he did not use storyboards and greatly disliked pre-planning (a studios worst nightmare and not something that endeared him to the studio I can imagine). Suzuki often came up with ideas for the film literally the night before shooting and he also felt that sudden inspiration made the film. An example of these sudden bursts of inspiration is Shishido’s character Goro Hanada’s rice sniffing fetish, Suzuki explained this would make him a quintessentially “Japanese killer” and remarked that “If he were Italian, he’d get turned on by macaroni, right?” With Suzuki’s rather free form style of directing he often allowed his actors to play their roles as they saw fit only intervening if things went “off track”. The film was edited in a single day as helped by Suzuki’s economical use of footage (a habit he had kept after film shortages after the war). Post-production was completed on June 14, 1967 a day before the actual release.

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The Chipmunk cheeked Joe Shishido as Goro Hanada, the Number Three Killer.

Branded to Kill: Comic Book Madness. 

To say that Branded to Kill breaks from convention is certainly an understatement. Although like its contemporaries it draws influence from Film Noir and the James Bond franchise, however unlike the typical genre films Suzuki began to draw a wide variety of different influences into the film. Examples of its influences include satire, kabuki stylistics, pop art, surrealism, absurdism, the Gothic, psychosexual romance, slapstick and the avant garde coupled with an often atonal soundtrack, musician and academic Philip Brophy referred to all these influences as creating a “heightened otherness”. Suzuki’s flirtations with the avant garde placed the film within what was known as the Japanese New Wave. The plot of Branded to Kill is often perplexing and incredibly loose, it is the story of boiled rice sniffer Goro Hanada who is the Number Three Killer in the country, after botching a job he becomes a target himself and works his way to a final showdown with the mysterious Number One killer. A deceptively simple plot is undercut with touches of surrealism and absurdity (his relationship with dead butterfly collection Misako being a particularly odd example).

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The films brief and bizarre animated sequence.

The film’s absurdity takes it beyond what most would consider to be traditional filmmaking and almost begins to resemble a comic book (or Manga in the case of Japan), one particularly absurd example includes Hanada shooting up a gas pipe which manages to lead a bullet directly to his target. Another example of this comic book aesthetic is it’s use of an animated sequence, the use of imagery is more commonly found within comics as opposed to films. The sheer lunacy of the plotline and the films visuals is what makes it so fascinating, the plot is admittedly rather scarce but that’s not the point one should immerse oneself in the madness of Suzuki’s vision to truly understand the film (if it’s capable of being understood?). Unlike with Tokyo Drifter Suzuki once again had to work in black and white, did this deter him in anyway? Certainly not! He took full advantage of the lack of colour and heavily used spotlighting and chiaroscuro lighting (a rare moment of abiding by genre conventions). Much like many cult films it is heavily intertextual, the whole concept of Hanada’s boiled rice sniffing fetish could possibly be a parody of James Bond’s liking for a martini “shaken not stirred”, the visual codes of film noir and the James Bond franchise are utilised heavily but all of which are subverted and almost mocked in some ways.

Suzuki V. Nikkatsu

Cut to 25 April 1968, Suzuki was informed over the phone that he would not be receiving his salary that month. Two of Suzuki’s friends met with Hori the next day to which they were informed that “Suzuki’s films were incomprehensible, that they did not make any money and that Suzuki might as well give up his career as a director as he would not be making films for any other companies.”. Around this time the student-run Cine Club was sponsoring a Retrospective of Suzuki’s career; this was intended to be the first of it’s kind for a Japanese director. It was schedule for 10 May but Hori withdrew all of Suzuki’s films from distribution and refused them to the Cine Club. Hori told the students that “Nikkatsu could not afford to cultivate a reputation for making films understood only by an exclusive audience and that showing incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company,” and “Suzuki’s films would not be shown for some time in theaters or by the Cine Club.”

A result of this Suzuki reported his illegal termination and removal of his films to the Japanese Film Directors Association. The chairman Heinosuke Gosho met with Hori but could not resolve the matter, Gosho went on to condemn Nikkatsu’s actions for breach of contract and violating Suzuki’s right to freedom of speech. On the original planned day of the retrospective a whopping two hundred people attended to debate the matter, the debate lasted three hours on whether they should negotiate the film’s release or confront Nikkatsu head on. They eventually agreed on the former and wished to keep their efforts public as well.  On June 7, Suzuki after attempts to negotiate with Nikkatsu he took them to court, suing for breach of contract and personal damages that would amount to  ¥7 380 000. Suzuki also demanded that Hori send three apology letters to three major newspapers on account that Hori gave the impression that all of Suzuki’s films were of low quality. Suzuki called a press conference with representatives from  the Directors Guild of Japan, the Actors Guild, the Scriptwriters Guild, ATG and the Cine Club. Nikkatsu Directors Association were the only group not to attend. On June 12 the Cine Club held a demonstration which resulted in the formation of joint committee supporting Suzuki against Nikkatsu. The committee was primarily made up of directors, actors, students, large film clubs and independent filmmakers. This became notable as it was a rare example of the public getting involved in what was usually an industry only dispute, in a rare instance the public were making demands to the studios rather than accepting the product they were given (couldn’t see this happening now could you?). Throughout this it was argued that due to Suzuki being brought in to direct the film at the last minute the studio has absolutely no right to criticise him for doing them a favour. This also revealed that Nikkatsu was in dire straits and up to it’s neck in debt, the increasingly totalitarian Hori refused to retract his actions and made Suzuki and example of how he did not want films in his studio made. Despite eventually receiving a fraction of the sum promised to him and getting his films Fighting Elegy (1966) and Branded to Kill archived in the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art Suzuki was blacklisted from the film industry for another ten years, even despite the public support he received. Nikkatsu continued to suffer and was forced to liquidate much of it’s studios and focus on making “roman porno” films.

Legacy of Branded to Kill

But don’t feel too bad for Suzuki, over this decade he mainly wrote and worked in television but his films became hits on the Midnight Movie market in which they once again developed a following and Suzuki himself was being seen as a Counterculture rebel. In 1980 returned with the beginning of his masterful so called “Taishō trilogy” Ziguenerweisen, which is a psychological surrealist period ghost story the film became a great hit and won Suzuki a Japanese Academy Award and brought in a new respect within the film industry. Branded to Kill was also beginning to gain a cult following abroad with directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch declaring themselves as fans, Jarmusch himself using it as an inspiration for his film Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999), and Suzuki would later go on to make a loose sequel in 2001 called Pistol Opera. So it can be said that in the end Suzuki can sleep safely knowing he has the last laugh on Nikkatsu.

Bibliography

Rayns, Tony (1994). “Suzuki on Suzuki”. Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun. Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Ueno, Kohshi. (2006) “Suzuki Battles Nikkatsu” The Films of Seijun Suzuki. Pacific Film Archive.

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