While some people might categorize Seijun Suzuki (The Sleeping Beast Within (1960)) as a Japanese new-wave director, such categorization would gloss over the fact that Suzuki was never interested in being political with his movies. The purpose of his cinematographical eclecticism was to entertain the spectator.
This time, in our exploration of Seijun Suzuki, we look closer to the supposedly incomprehensible film that led him to be wrongfully dismissed at Nikkatsu.
One day, Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), the third-ranked hitman within the Japanese underworld, is approached by Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), a formerly ranked hitman turned taxi driver, to help him get back in the game. Hanada accepts and, at a club owned by the yakuza boss Michihiko Yabuhara (Isao Tamagawa), both men are hired to escort a client (Koji Nanbara) from Sagami Beach to Nagano.
Things go south quickly. At the first ambush, Kasuga, half hysterical, charges Koh, the fourth-ranked hitman, both ending up killing each other. At a second ambush, Hanada sets Sakura, the second-ranked hitman, on fire. Later, when his car breaks down, he is picked up by the mysterious Misako (Annu Mari). And then, Misako recruits him for a seemingly impossible job.
While Branded To Kill is, at its core, a noirish killer-for-hire narrative, Suzuki’s creative additions has enriched his noirish film with influences from a variety of genres. Suzuki’s narrative features action-sequences, slap-stick comedy, e.g. Kasuga’s inability to handle his gun, and a bunch of erotic moments – Yubahara seducing Hanada’s willing wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) – and soft-pornographic encounters – Hanada with Mami and, later, with Misako. Ultimately, Suzuki expertly transforms his noirish narrative into a ravishing psychological exploration of Hanada’s subjective breakdown.
The most peculiar aspect of eroticism that marks Branded To Kill concerns Hanada’s atypical “fetish” object: the smell of boiling rice. In truth, the need for Hanada to smell boiling rise to arouse himself and make the sexual act possible, is not a fetish object at all. Nevertheless, we can interpret this aspect. Hanada needs to be intoxicated by the smell of this quintessentially Japanese aspect to be able to function, to be able to believe he has what it takes, the elusive imaginary phallus (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). In this respect, Hanada is radically different than James Bond. Whereas James Bond is a clear-cut phallic man, Hanada is a man marked by phallic insecurity.
The theme of death is brought into play via the character of Misako. Misako does not only nurture a death-wish, but is obsessed with death, as expressed by the dead bird hanging her car and the death butterflies that surround her in her apartment. There is – and this clear as day – something erotic about Misako and her death obsession. Hanada is attracted to her beauty as well as he is ‘repulsed’ by her obsession with death and dying. Eventually, as subtly evoked by the animated pop-art sequence, it is implied that Hanada’s obsession with Misako is precisely because of the eroticizing quality of her obsession with death.
Why is Hanada unable to make love to her as well as unable to kill her? In our view, Misako’s obsession with death and dying, while erotic, confronts him with his phallic insufficiency. In more evocative terms, we could say that the erotic Thanatos that drives Misako endangers the frail Eros of Hanada.
Hanada’s desire to attain the pinnacle rank as hitmen should be understood as a desire to attain the elusive (imaginary) phallus. One could even say that it is precisely because he suffers from such insecurity, the aspect of becoming number 1 can be so enticing. But such desire, while empowering, is one all is said and done but a vain attempt to attain the ever-elusive phallus (Narra-note 3). But in the case of Hanada, without such a drive or without the smell of rice or alcohol to subdue his sense of insufficiency, he remains impotent.
What stands out the most in Suzuki’s dynamic composition is its visual or stylish eclecticism, e.g. the pop-art sequence, the gothic as well as noirish visuals. Suzuki’s pleasing visual extravagance is not only apparent in his stylish eclecticism, but also in his (wild) compositional style. He uses all elements at his disposal (e.g. the lighting-design, camera-perspectives, mirrors, … etc.) to give his shot-compositions a certain, albeit crude, flair. These rough but stylish shot-compositions have, in most cases, only a decorating function, primarily aimed at heightening the spectator’s visual pleasure.
Another cinematographical aspect that stands out in the beginning of Branded to Kill is something we can call the evocative transition. The evocative transition is a short interlude between two scenes, a snappy concatenation of three of more shots, that utilizes the association of visual elements (as signifiers) to fleetingly evoke meaning and concisely provide narrative context.
Considering Suzuki’s preference for letting sudden inspiration dictate the visuals as well as the compositional flow, one can easily accept that some ‘choices’ disturb the consistence of the narrative, but that does not mean that these choices are without sense. The enjoyment of Branded To Kill does not truly derive the sense the narrative as a whole has or might not have, but from enjoying the evocative dimension of the visually enticing scenes as such. Branded to Kill is, in other words, an evocative visual feast thriving on visual association and should be enjoyed as such.
Branded To Kill is as entertaining as it is estranging. Yet, this estranging aspect, as born from the eclectic cinematographical style, is the very reason why Suzuki’s narrative, after so many years, remains a classic. But Suzuki’s Branded To Kill is more than just a visual feast full of pleasing geometrical compositions. His evocative and associative narrative beautifully explores the impact the ever-elusive and frankly impossible to attain phallus can have on the mental functioning of a subject.
Narra-note 1: An additional element supporting our interpretation concerns the fact, as evoked early in the narrative, that he also smells rice before a job.
His demand that a woman makes rice for him, for that matter, also supports our interpretation as Hanada’s demand installs a relation where he can pleasingly position himself as the male that has it. The demand, ever expressed with verbal and even, in some cases, non-verbal violence, hides the phallic insecurity that structures him.
Narra-note 2: In the second part of the narrative, Hanada does not only drink alcohol to silence the inner turmoil two successive events caused, but also to silence the phallic insufficiency he is troubled by.
Narra-note 3: The possibility for Hanada to make the psychological switch from being burdened by his phallic inadequacy towards the empowering drive to become the top assassin (and supposedly efface this lack) is function of the speech, the repetition of ‘I’m Champion’, he hears.
Cine-note 1: There are some funny and absurd inconsistencies in the narrative. Not only do bullets often do not impact the environment, Hanada, at one point, shoots with his gun through the front-window of his car without breaking said window.