Koroshi no rakuin
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
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The Nikkatsu studios logo that precedes Branded to Kill is accompanied by gunshots. The sound underscores the studio’s penchant for the crime genre. Within the decade preceding this film, director Seijun Suzuki helmed close to thirty films for the studio in a tenure that singularly exemplifies Nikkatsu’s prolific output of genre films. His flourish and concentration of work ended in 1967 upon the release of this film.
Given such a track record (illustrated simply by the frequency and haste of Suzuki’s filmography), this is an odd consequence. Branded to Kill, Suzuki’s unqualified masterpiece, is ostensibly a characteristic yakuza picture in retrospect—it is in black and white without trademark faces and with plenty of gunshots. It is alongside its contemporaries, however, where its discrepancy is apparent and welcome.
Joe Shishido is the film’s unlikely, central killer-for-hire. His face is bulbous with enlarged cheeks (actor Goro Hanada is rumored to have been endowed by cosmetic surgery), and his appetite is intense for boiled rice. He is hired for routine executions, each of which is mystified and performed with innovation (one casualty is targeted through a sink drain). His obsession is in ascending his occupational ladder; women, prestige, and wealth are each met, yet none are potentially as rewarding as attaining the pinnacle rank, which he (humorously) rests below as Japan’s Number 3 killer. His rank is not an emblem of prowess but of a capacity for improvement.
This desire for corporate ascension is a trait popularized foremost in Western crime films, in which the Bad Guy popularly aspires to be the most known or most feared. It is a peculiar trait here as the film is so correspondent with its nationality (hence Shishido’s obsession with rice), yet subverted by Suzuki’s surreal ending.
When isolated within its era, Branded to Kill is wildly adamant as a genre film: Joe Shishido is as oddly passionate and sexually engaged as other hitmen of his era, yet most every one of his character traits is an extreme variation of his corresponding peers’. His obsession for boiled rice, for one, mirrors James Bond’s meticulous order for a martini, yet Shishido’s obsession retains not the slightest air of sophistication. Joe’s obsession with rice, in effect, is contradictive to his obsession to improve his status. In several scenes Shishido lingers over a pot of rice as steam fogs his permanent sunglasses; it is a careful establishment of his idiosyncratic cool, an action constructed with patient direction and ambience (steam glides slowly up the frame) and laughable for what it depicts.
“Cool” is appropriate to Suzuki’s work in comparison to other domestic stylistics. France, at the end of a meager renaissance in genre crime, contained films that exhibited iconography and suspense (see: Clouzot, Melville, and Chabrol); the birth of the James Bond films (in the UK and USA) mythologized the title character’s sophistication, wit, and gadgetry; Suzuki (judging solely by this film and his prior Tokyo Drifter) is the most adamant arbiter of style among the directors and native tendencies cited here. The film’s thematic innovations are enriched by its cinematography, humor, and impermeable quirkiness. Suzuki melds eastern production values and western crime devices into a film with little inhibition and ample creativity. It is not limiting that I isolate this one film for this argument, as it alone does well to display the magnitude of Suzuki’s innovations as a director. Apparent in this film alone is the fringe of the sexual revolution (a clever montage repeats shots of Shisido’s empty bed and his sporadic sex in a variety of locations) and stylistic innovations that presage the work of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch (who borrows explicitly from Branded to Kill in Ghost Dog).
Branded to Kill culminates, inevitably, with a climactic encounter between Shishido, having disarmed his immediate superior, and the Number 1 killer. The confrontation follows a handful of action shootouts, each individually accomplished, yet the final action is simply not anticipatory. The two men meet and acknowledge each other’s threat by binding each other. They sleep and eat together, even urinating back-to-back. It is, firstly, comedic, as it is a situation contrived for its obvious comedy, yet is depicted with dignity.
Suzuki’s firing subsided his career for roughly a decade, isolating his work during the time to television, and, afterwards, deliberating the prior frequency of his work. Triumphantly, the action does well to example the deviance of his art, which is his most distinguished trait as a director.