Widely revered as an absurdist classic, it's essentially Seijun Suzuki just doing whatever he thought would be cool and thus getting himself fired for making "movies that make no sense and no money." It was a catastrophic flop at the time, but it's since influenced the likes of Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, Chan-wook Park and Quentin Tarantino.
Firstly, the plot. This won't take long. Joe Shishido is a hit man who loves the smell of rice. He takes a job that involves escorting a client, but that plot thread gets dropped when Suzuki gets bored and starts showing us Shishido's life at home instead. This is more interesting than it sounds because his wife (Mariko Ogawa) has a powerful sex drive and likes nudity. Shishido kills more people. He meets Annu Mari, who hires him to do another job. A butterfly lands on Shishido's gun. Things go wrong. Shishido goes up against Number One and the film briefly becomes a Japanese yakuza version of The Prisoner, before mutating into something else yet again. There's a plot involving diamonds that you might perhaps start to piece together on your second or third viewing. The end.
Suzuki sued Nikkatsu for wrongful dismissal and won, but they had a point. This film is indeed impenetrable. It's just that Nikkatsu's executives had been covering up huge financial losses for years and had set up Suzuki as a scapegoat to cover themselves. All the Japanese studios were bleeding money in the 1960s, but Nikkatsu was the only one that effectively went bankrupt. Less than a year after Suzuki won his court case, they turned to Roman Porno.
In addition, I think the plot is partly Nikkatsu's fault. They didn't understand the original script and deemed it "inappropriate" just before filming, forcing Suzuki and his group to do last-minute rewrites.
In other words, don't watch this for its plot. Suzuki's pet hates included storyboards and pre-planning, by the way. He felt the best things in his movies were ideas he'd come up with the night before or on the set, such as Shishido's rice-sniffing. His direction of his actors basically involved letting them do what they wanted and only intervening if they went "off track". Editing the film took one day and post-production was completed the day before the film's release.
What it has instead is style. It's shot in black and white by a talented lunatic, who's so fond of his motifs of rain, birds and butterflies that at one point he does a montage of cut-outs of them. There's attention-grabbing cinematography. The incidental music is offbeat and has a theme that kept reminding me of Scarborough Fair. There's enough nudity that Suzuki couldn't find a studio actress willing to play the Mariko Ogawa role, but it's shot as if Suzuki didn't find nudity particularly interesting in itself and was always looking for ways to make the scene more stylish. There's no visual technique he won't steal to make his film look better. It's fun to look at, I'll give it that. I particularly liked the fact that you've got this loopy subversive semi-experimental film being shot in classical-looking old-school black and white.
Meanwhile the script has points of interest, despite being to all intents and purposes basically cinematic jazz. It's influenced by James Bond, film noir and so on, but it's exaggerating genre tropes until they break. Film noir protagonists are often trying to be the best in their field. This film gives all of its top hitmen a ranking, over which they obsess. "You've just fallen in rank." "Tell me your rank." They all want to be Number One, which made me wonder if they hold an annual championship. Would that be a "last man standing" affair, or else do they each pick a children's orphanage to massacre? That's how the film turns into The Prisoner. "Where is Number One?"
Similarly the film has as much booze and sex as a Bond film, but with a difference. Shishido has rules for himself. A good hitman shouldn't get distracted with such fripperies. Shishido's sex drive will be what makes him a failure, while one of the few blazingly clear things here is the link that's made between alcohol and being a pathetic amateur. Shishido is the tough hitman protagonist of a yakuza film, who drinks and has sex with women... and in the end, all of these things get deconstructed to make him look insane, dysfunctional and/or a loser. Look at his last scene, as he's screaming about Number One in a boxing ring and destroying exactly the thing he'd wanted. I'd be expecting any future career path to involve The Big Issue and asking passers-by for 10p for a cup of tea.
Number One is even weirder, though. Most of the film didn't really engage me, to be honest, but Number One is so bonkers that I couldn't help paying attention. The bit where he deliberately pisses himself is an eyebrow-raiser, for starters, but it's all been odd from the point where he's phoning up his target to give advice on proper eating and malnutrition.
The cast are attention-grabbing. Shishido is a freak, for starters. He looks as if he's had plastic surgery to give himself huge sagging cheeks... and that's exactly what he'd done. This actor paid to get it done in 1957. He looks like a hamster. This helped him in getting villainous roles, but to put it mildly, he'd hardly be the obvious choice for James Bond. Apart from him, you'll probably be noticing the women. Mariko Ogawa never acted in anything else, according to imdb, but she's triumphant here. The nudity doesn't own her. She owns the nudity. Meanwhile the femme fatale, Annu Mari, isn't a big name either but there's something exotic and moody about her. Being Indo-Japanese is a big part of that.
Maru's character's another way in which Suzuki's going apeshit with genre conventions, by the way. She's a femme fatale, which in Suzuki's opinion means she's obsessed with death, wants to die, surrounds herself with dead things and gets people killed. She has a bird with a nail through its throat hanging from her car mirror, while her apartment at home has thousands of butterflies pinned to the wall.
It has a sequel, by the way, made by Suzuki himself over thirty years later. It's called Pistol Opera (2001) and it sounds even more confusing than Branded to Kill. All the imdb reviewers hate it.
Did I enjoy this? Not really, but it's different. You can see why it played to deserted cinemas, but also why famous directors admire it. It's got a Criterion DVD. It's also the most whacked-out film Suzuki ever made at Nikkatsu, being the one where he went so overboard that it got him sacked. His earlier movies are more conventional, although that said Nikkatsu had felt the need to warn him only the year before to play it straight. I had a bit of trouble with this film, but Tokyo Drifter
's still in my "to watch" list and I'm looking forward to it.