A dazzling, dizzying descent into black and white madness, Branded to Kill is one of the most stylish and well-loved Japanese films ever made, but it took a while to find its audience.
The appreciation certainly didn’t start inside Nikkatsu, the studio that produced the film. Following completion, Branded to Kill was screened for the studio heads, many of who were left very confused, and unable to unravel the film’s befuddling plot. They were reportedly angered by Suzuki’s seeming disregard for narrative sense, and so he was promptly fired from the studio. Suzuki has sadly made relatively few films since, although his most recent film, 2005’s Princess Raccoon, really was something special.
I must have seen Branded to Kill around a dozen times now and while I do feel like I know what’s going on in the plot, I’m still not convinced I fully appreciate every aspect of the narrative. Even still, this has never seemed like an issue. Each time, I’ve just been utterly lost in Suzuki’s creation, wrapped up in Branded to Kill‘s bleak, monochromatic but oddly cool world, crashing back into colour and reality only after the film’s stark finale and closing credits.
The film’s protagonist, Hanada (Jo Shishido), is a contract hit man who is considered the ‘Number Three Killer’. We see him struggle with a couple of tricky kills before attempting to track down and defeat the ‘Number One Killer.’ But does this elusive killer even exist and if he does, how will Hanada eliminate him?
As Hanada’s mind begins to unravel, the film’s plot becomes secondary to attempt to visually express the character’s mental state. Suzuki and cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka‘s visual approach to Branded to Kill is pretty wild from the beginning but things really take a turn for the bizarre in the second half. The pair reportedly improvised a number of the shots and they definitely have the feel of choices made on location, with an approach to shooting around objects and from strange angles that brings to mind Christopher Doyle‘s work with Wong Kar-wai.
And always in the background is Naozumi Yamamoto‘s laid-back jazz score, which ties many of the film’s wildly off-kilter scenes together, and effectively adds to the moody atmosphere.
Branded to Kill may not be quite as impenetrable as its reputation would suggest but it is a tricky film to understand at times. Perseverance is rewarded in spades, however, and you’ll unlock an an extraordinary feature that feels like almost nothing else.
Trapped in Lust is a remake of Branded to Kill directed – but somewhat strangely, not written by – Atsushi Yamatoya, one of the screenwriters on Branded to Kill. Trapped in Lust was produced as a Roman Porno by Nikkatsu and it actually follows the plot of Branded to Kill reasonably closely much of the time, but there are times when it also diverges wildly.
The film is also heavy on sexual content, not that Branded to Kill was exactly sparse on that front. There’s a definite sense that Yamatoya has ensured the ‘requisite amount’ of sex to placate his bosses, and audiences who are watching the film solely to see such material.
As a result, the film is rather dull and repetitive at times, but these more tiresome scenes are accompanied by a number of striking and rather shocking moments. One sequence in particular sees a man dressed as ventriloquist dummy, attached to another larger dummy, and raping a woman while spewing bizarre ramblings in a high pitched squealing voice. And there’s a music box playing loudly in the background. You probably won’t believe me, but the scene is even weirder and more uncomfortable to watch than it sounds from that description.
There may be a lot of shock value and lunacy in Trapped in Lust but there’s not a great deal else going on and whilst it may be a very diverting experience it’s not one of great resonance.