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Branded to Kill (Suzuki Seijun 1967)


Branded to Kill
[Koroshi no rakuin]

Genre: Noir Yakuza Action

review in one breath

"He loves the smell of boiling rice more than anything in the world."

Enter the world of rice-sniffing Yakuza killers! Enter the world of moth-collecting nihilists! Enter the world of Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill (1967)! This is the type of pop noir movie where you sit with mouth open in a state of disbelief.

Hanada is the underworld's "Number 3 Killer", who will receive an unexpected promotion when Killers Number 2 and Number 4 are reassigned to the nether world. Hanada has been hired by Yabuhara, a yakuza boss, to do some urgent dirty work which will involve super cool intellect and discipline of mind and body. We will soon find, however, that Hanada is neither too cool of intellect nor overly disciplined in mind, body or libido, for that matter. And yet Hanada is a man of many skills. He frequently jumps from moving cars with guns cocked and aimed at nearby autos filled with oblivious beatniks! He scuba dives, yet for no apparent reason other than to wear the puffy rubber suit! He can shoot his super cool guns through glass and windshields without even making a crack! He can utterly engulf a huge stone fortress in flames with a single gallon of gasoline! He can hit his target no matter which way his gun is pointed (which is often other than at his victim)! And (my personal favorite) he eats hot rice simply by sticking his face in the rice cooker!

Hanada's first task is to deliver a "customer" to the boss. He is aided by Kasuga who was also once a ranked killer but whose increasingly weak nerves have lead him to the status of drunken imbecile. Hanada is continually preaching at and correcting Kasuga's slack ways until we find Kasuga doing a girlish jig of excited terror in the heat of a gunfight with bad guys trying to kill the "customer". Mustering his only ounce of remaining testosterone, Kasuga decides to attack Koh, a killer far his superior, with the calculated strategy of charging at him from a rather great distance while screaming incoherently and flailing his arms. This strategy seems to be aimed at creating the loudest and largest target possible, and let's just say, the strategy works, as Kasuga dies of a close range gunshot wound which inexplicably causes him to foam from the mouth.

Though Hanada is married to his sexy and oft nude wife Mami, he turns into a babbling genitalia after meeting the dark and mysterious Misako. Even at first glance Misako looks like someone Dracula would flee from in horror, and our first impression is soon reinforced by our second, third and fourth. We are introduced to Misako as she picks up the hitch-hiking Hanada driving an open convertible during a torrential downpour. While Hanada brilliantly attempts to light his cigarette while being face-whipped by large raindrops at 60 miles an hour, he notices that hanging from Misako's rearview mirror is a dead bird with a nail stuck through its neck! Of course, this makes her all the more desirable! After being invited up, Hanada discovers Misako's loveshack of nihilism consists of black walls and about a gazillion dead moths. There are moths pinned to the walls, moths on the furniture, moths covering the floor, even moths on the chandelier. The rain, dead birds and moths drive Hanada into a libidinous frenzy which results in his screaming demands for boiled rice! "Cook me rice! Everybody has at least some rice in their house! If you don't have rice, you can just go to the store to buy some!" Clearly Hanada has succumbed to the seduction which is Misako!

When Misako asks Hanada to kill a "foreigner" for her, he readily agrees and sets out a strategy requiring skill and timing. However, right at the moment the target passes by, a butterfly lands on Hanada's rifle. Since butterflies in Japan are vastly heavier than in other parts of the world, we are not surprised when its weight completely obliterates Hanada's shooting skill as he pulls the trigger and inadvertently kills a woman pedestrian and then a woman cop (!), allowing the foreigner target to escape. Despite Hanada's attempts to explain that "a flying thing" landed on his rifle at the crucial moment, Misako solemnly informs Hanada that this little butterfly boo-boo cannot go overlooked and that the yakuza will undoubtedly remove his ranking. When asked what they will do, Hanada responds that he will flee and hide out, while Misako calmly replies "I will die. Have you ever thought of death?".

Upon returning home, Hanada is confronted with a characteristically nude yet unusually angry Mami, who promptly shoots him in the belt buckle and flees the house naked. The shot to the accessory causes Hanada to collapse in a heap on the floor and fire to spontaneously burst out in the adjoining room! (?) After what seems like several minutes, Hanada regains consciousness, realizes he was not shot, and hurriedly limps his way back to Misako's Moth Palace. Upon arriving, Hanada skillfully collapses once again, this time into the arms of Misako. Though Hanada will eventually try every trick in the book to seduce her, Misako quickly demonstrates that Hanada is at most a new moth for her collection. While Hanada gawks at one of her removed stockings, Misako tricks him out of his gun and appears ready to shoot him. Such mind and libido bending bizarreness causes Hanada to literally freak out and flee back home. Upon arriving, there appears to be no fire damage and and Mami has returned, still nude and ready for some lovin'.

Mami confesses that the boss Yabuhara forced her to try to kill Haneda after his butterfly fiasco. Perhaps due to lack of boiled rice, Hanada is not in a forgiving sentiment and ends up shooting nude Mami and heads for Yabuhara's hideout for some whoop-ass revenge. While Yabuhara is literally a doorknob's turn away from meeting the hell-bent Hanada, he is shot through the forehead (while opening the door!?) by an unforeseen gunman. This could only be the work of Killer Number One, the "Phantom, whose face no one has ever seen". While searching through Yabuhara's hideout, he stumbles across an 8mm movie starring Misako in the role of a bound naked victim of a yakuza boss. Misako is apparently undergoing some sort of torture involving fire and glass cages in a remote sinister location which is explicitly divulged near the end of the film. Hanada rushes to the scene to rescue the potentially barbequed cutey.

After a wild gunfight at the sinister location, requiring Hanada to strip down to his underwear and then drive over and drag a couple bad guys, he apparently forgets all about Misako and begins to leave. As he is walking away from the carnage laughing at the stupidity of his victims, he runs into the Phantom. The Phantom informs him that due to the bushido law of yakuza killers, Hanada must be killed for his mistake, but not here, not right now. This warning sends Hanada into paranoia, causing him to lock himself in his apartment. "Where is Number One? I know he's aiming at me!".

Without going into detail of the machismo dual between the Phantom and Hanada which causes them to walk down the street holding hands and using the same urinal arm in arm, and in which Hanada receives a second film showing Misako heavily bandaged while undergoing mobility rehabilitation, suffice it to say the final showdown between the two is set for 1am to 3am in Etsuaku Gymnasium's Boxing Stadium. Hanada takes up his strategic position within the boxing arena promptly at 1am and then begins to sweat and tremble profusely. The full two hours pass without the Phantom showing up. Precisely as the clock strikes 3am, Hanada leaps out of his hiding place yelling that the Phantom is a coward. Hanada is promptly shot by the Phantom who is standing in the shadows. "This is the way Number One works. He tires you and then he kills you!" As Hanada slumps to the ground, he is able to fire off a couple rounds, hitting and apparently killing the Phantom. This turn of events allows Hanada to regain his strength as he jumps around the ring Rocky-style screaming "I am Number One!!!". Unfortunately his nerves are still a little frayed, for at the sound of Misako in bandages and crutches entering the gymnasium, he instinctively shoots causing the already traumatized Misako the additional annoyance of a fatal gunshot wound. Hanada's loud exclamations turn into the perplexed statement "I am number one (?)" as he falls out of the ring with a thud, leaving the audience staring into the empty ring with mouths gaping open in disbelief and incredulity. Thus is the Tragic and Ironic End of a professional yakuza killer.

Director Seijun Suzuki's films seem to generally portray the ludicrousness of violence in society. This was his express intent with Fighting Elegy (1966) and he seems to be following this trajectory with Branded to Kill (1967). Nikkatsu Film, for whom Suzuki created Fighting Elegy, Tokyo Drifter (1966), and others, promptly fired him after viewing Branded to Kill. In an interview accompanying the DVD version, Suzuki recalls, "They told me my films didn't make money and they didn't make sense, so they fired me".

Hanada's character is played by Jo Shishido who stars in numerous other yakuza or tough guy films. Shishido underwent plastic surgery to "enhance" (more like balloon) his cheek bones, a strategy which apparently worked, causing him to become wildly popular with audiences.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Sensationalist Yakuza tale of biblical proportions. Although contemporary critics hail Director Suzuki's bold style, this film got him promptly fired from the Nikkatsu Production company for being unintelligible. Too many shootings to count, amazingly many through the forehead. One hit and run (and drag). One burning man running wildly only to be hit by a car. One "swirly" (One's head strategically yet refreshingly placed in flushing toilet bowl). Three dead canaries, one pierced through neck with nail. Untold carnage of a gazillion moths. You will become familiar with the body of every female appearing in this film, except the lady cop who is unfortunately shot before she could do a nude scene. Over-the-top gangster movie. And what is it with Hanada's fetish for the smell of rice?! He is seen literally hugging a rice cooker between his legs! And let's not even mention moth lady's dysfunctional bird care or the Phantom's "demonstration" of his austere discipline by urinating on Hanada's couch! (I didn't mention that one above, did I?)

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