There are movies that make you wonder just what in the world you just watched. I remember having that reaction when I watched Hausu, a positively gonzo haunted house film made in the 1970s Japan. I have just had that reaction again to another Japanese film, this one a Yakuza thriller from the late 1960s. The movie is called Branded to Kill and it is one of those movies that reads pretty straight forward on paper, but when it comes to the execution, look out! This is a bizarre movie that borders on the nonsensical. It is also a movie well worth the time if you want to take trip off the beaten path.
The movie was directed by Seijun Suzuki, a director I have come to really like based on the few films i have seen. Other films he has made include Pistol Opera, Tokyo Drifter, and Underworld Beauty. His style is somewhat minimalist and certainly surreal. I have seen him compared to Nouvelle Vague directors of the French New Wave, specifically Jean Luc Godard. I can definitely see the comparisons after watching a movie like Alphaville. With Branded to Kill, Suzuki has crafted a film whose unconventional style, odd editing, and strange characters all serve to distract from the mundane plot. It works.
The story follows Hanada (Joe Shishido, whose chipmunk-like cheeks were the result of plastic surgery), the third best assassin in Japan. He has his sites set on taking the number one spot away from the nameless mystery man who currently holds the distinction.
Hanada is approached by a friend to work a bodyguard job, which he accepts. The job goes well until they are ambushed by assassins 4 and 2. The ensuing battle finds Hanada moving up a slot to number two. He also meets a mysterious woman named Misako, who is morbidly fascinated with death and uses dead butterflies as house decoration. Anyway, she hires him to kill a foreigner, which he botches when a butterfly lands on his rifle. This finds Hanada on the outside looking in as his former employers want him dead. This ultimately leads to a confrontation with the number one assassin in Japan.
Again, the story is only part of the equation. The movie has an intriguing visual pop art aesthetic that helps create a rather surreal atmosphere. There are odd elements throughout, such as Hanada's use of boiling rice as an aphrodisiac, the odd editing employed that jumps around during a few scenes, the way they shoot through car windows as if there is no glass there, and the highly stylized line delivery and camera angles. This is a movie that begs, and rewards, multiple viewings.