It took me at least a half-hour to figure out that Branded to Kill (a.k.a. Koroshi no rakuin) was not a movie to figure out. Seijun Suzuki's oddball hitman drama starts off like a jazzy new wave thriller, but very quickly comes to resemble something that ADD-fueled high school kids might have filmed on weekends without a script. As the low-budget ridiculousness of the characters and situations grow simultaneously nuttier and more surreal, Suzuki's cult classic seems both impeccably designed and completely slapdash, the inspired mating of anarchic parody and brooding art-house tone poem. Having read about the movie a little bit since watching it, all of those conflicting interpretations appear to be well-founded.
Jo Shishido stars as Hanada, a hitman who has climbed to number three on the Yakuza's killer charts. While his peers at the top of his profession eschew the trappings of "normal" life, Hanada is married and finds great comfort in domesticity, especially the smell of cooking rice. These quirks, however, not only don't protect him from the competitive pressures of his job, they make him even more vulnerable to such on-the-job hazards as treachery, mental crack-ups and maybe even death.
Suzuki, who was on-contract with the Japanese studio Nikkatsu, was tasked with stepping into this wayward project right before production and delivering a commercially viable product on a tight schedule, even though his reputation with the studio bosses was already strained by his eccentric style and increasingly perplexing output. When they saw what he made of Branded to Kill, they fired him and buried the movie, turning the director and his film into cause celebres. It's not hard to see where his employers, as businessmen, were coming from: Suzuki's movie is a bizarre hodgepodge of silliness and artistry that uses its gritty subject matter as a launching pad for weird flights of fancy that confused and alienated the general audience — but which also made him a favorite of film students and western directors.
With Naozumi Yamamoto's exciting jazz score complementing Kazue Nagatsuka's stark and fascinatingly composed cinematography, Branded to Kill frequently evokes the aesthetics of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and Jean-luc Godard's Alphaville (one would suspect that it also owes a debt of inspiration to Jean Pierre Melville's Le samouraï, which it seems to be mocking directly in several instances, except that the French hitman drama was released four months later in the same year), and the director's flurry of sometimes random and knowingly crude ideas manages to propel the movie forward with a unique energy even when the narrative seems to get stuck for too long in preposterous ruts. Whether or not there is a cohesive thematic point to Branded to Kill, or if it's just a collection of spur-of-the-moment ideas and inspired visual riffs, it's consistently neat, fun & surprising.
Branded to Kill was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Dan Kocher, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Fish_beauty. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #225 (out of 5899 movies; 96%) and 3rd out of 34 Japanese New Wave movies. On my chart, Branded to Kill ranked at #676 (82%), where it's also my 3rd favorite Japanese New Wave film, out of a much less impressive total of six.