The second film I saw for the Nikkatsu Seasons in the Sun festival at the BFI Southbank was Seijun Suzuki’s last masterpiece for the studio; Branded To Kill. As with many of the films shown in this festival, the story surrounding the film’s creation is as intricate and compelling as the actual plot. Branded was in parts a test put to Suzuki by the studio who, unhappy with his flamboyant visual style and supposedly incomprehensible narrative structure, limited Suzuki to the black and white medium and gave him one of the simplest, cookie cutter scripts they had access to in the vain attempt to subdue his flair and create a film that would draw audiences in and be profitable.
As with most geniuses, Suzuki was advanced for his time and most likely knew it. Taking a basic revenge plot following a hit man who is turned upon by his employers, Suzuki formulated a schizophrenic journey into the psyche of a man trained to be a cold, calculated killer and explored the themes of love, passion and regret through stylistic shots, bizarre jump cuts and ridiculous conspiracies.
The film reads almost as a single, unifying hate letter to Nikkatsu, a metaphorical two fingers up to his would be detractors – whilst at the same time being a love letter to the French pioneers of the nouvelle vague such as Goddard and Truffaut.
Arguments are often made within the art world of style over substance, and Branded to Kill sets up many questions over the relevance of this. The style is as indisputable as the impetus behind such a film, especially with the knowledge of how simplistic the script was originally intended to be, therefore putting forward Suzuki’s suggested argument that film is a stylistic medium whilst any substance garnered is merely an added bonus.
That isn’t to say the film lacks a driving plot, the force behind our protagonist Hanada’s desire to dethrone the anonymous ‘Number 1’ and set himself up as the ultimate killing machine is palpable. However, that is not what keeps your eyes glued to the screen. It is instead the beautifully mastered multi angled shots, the breathtaking artistic scenes between Hamanda’s lover Misako and the erratic action of the numerous shootouts.
Much like American new wave cinema of the same time, the soundtrack within Branded is as integral to the piece as Steppenwolf, the Byrds or Jimi Hendricks was to Hopper and Fonda’s easy rider. The quirky intermittent jazz with its rise and fall, steady changes of pace and the utter self-indulgence throughout make watching the film remarkably similar to listening to a Miles Davis album for the first time.
It is only through bearing witness to more modern rebels of cinema such as Lynch, Herzog and Kronenburg that a film such as Branded can be understood for its genius. Were a similar film to be made today it would of course face resistance from the major production houses, but I do feel that this masterpiece would have been recognised because of the ground work put in by many other directors of the same school of thought.
The Seasons in the Sun festival ran until the end of June and I only wish I’d had time to see some more shows. Many thanks to curator Jason Sharp for allowing us access to these all but forgotten gems of cinematic history who introduced the film to us, I wish him all the best with his continued effort to bring these films more into the limelight.
Words by Duncan Stevens
Image from the Criterion Collection