Target Audience: Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill (1967) – DVD review
A weird, wild hitman movie that marries ‘cool’ (hip, flip style) with ‘cold’ (laconic art-house abstraction) with mind-scrambling panache. Only in the 1960s, eh?
Branded To Kill
(Seijun Suzuki, 1967)
If the past is, as J.R. Hartley reckoned, indeed a foreign country, then the 1960s were another planet. Huge social and cultural upheavals around the world created a rare moment when the divide between pop-culture and avant-garde got torn down, and cinema capitalised like never before or since. When else could a director as simultaneously accessible and incomprehensible as Seijun Suzuki emerge? As if his indescribable Toyko Drifter wasn’t mad enough, then along came Branded To Kill: the baffling, brilliant lovechild of James Bond and Jean-Luc Godard.
Somewhere in Branded To Kill exists a perfectly sensible plot about a hired killer who botches a job and is therefore himself targeted to die. To be honest, you’ve probably seen that film a dozen times and are thoroughly bored of it. Suzuki reacts in the same way. Instead, the director turns the story inside-out, lingers on odd details, cuts out exposition and shifts genres when the mood takes him. The result is an abstraction of the hitman movie, in which everything gets boiled down to its essence – literally, in the case of the rice that the film’s anti-hero, Killer #3, is obsessed with eating.
The screenplay is credited to Hachiro Guryu, or “Group of Eight,” this being the work of a cabal of counter-cultural writers (including Suzuki) all firing off in different directions. The result anticipates Monty Python in its surreal absurdism, as two killers end up living together so they keep tabs on each other and everybody is more concerned with trying to rise up the league table of murder than worrying about the ethics of their profession. Indeed, the mystery of who is ‘Number One’ chimes with The Prisoner, being made at roughly the same time, and in a surprisingly similar, freewheeling style. The flip, hip mood restyles conventional shoot-outs as a darkly comic choreography of death, especially in the gloriously comic strip-style montage in which Killer #3 uses drainpipes and balloons as props in his kill spree. There’s even a semi-animated interlude: how Python!
Yet, every time the ‘cool factor’ threatens to go mainstream, Suzuki makes another abrupt change of direction. The editing is non-linear and obtuse, fragmenting our understanding of a scene’s logistics; the camera is forever gliding sideways into narrative stasis, a wryly elegant bystander to the action; the geometric shapes of the modernist set design locks the killer into patterns that feel like prisons. Put together, this is pop-art gone art-house, a formalist critique of crime as a world of hidden corners and jump cuts.
Suzuki has enormous fun pulling apart the Bond-esque notion of the cool killer by showing the incompatibility between a hard livin’ lifestyle of sex and booze, and the Zen-like need to be aloof and implacable. Can a successful killer really exist given the temptations of modern life? And if not, then what’s the point? Sex is never far from Killer #3’s mind, and he’s only one mistake away from hitting the bottle. The film’s masterstroke is to interrogate these contradictions through the personality of Killer #1, who deliberately targets such human weakness as a psychological tool to unseat his victims. The result is such a post-modern, comic interloper in this traditional genre that it’s no wonder a whole generation of directors (from Jarmusch to Tarantino) have borrowed from Suzuki.