Branded to Kill (1967)

Made on a low budget and in no time at all, Branded to Kill (Koroshi No Rakuin) is a delirious and highly stylised gangland film about a killer who has a seriously bad trot at work. I was lucky enough to see this at one of the free screenings of classics at the Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne. And in a world going mad, why not add a bit more madness!

Funny, vicious, and daft by turns, Suzuki Seijun’s make it up as you go direction, the input of eight co-writers who all seem to have Ideas (the Hachiro Guryu), and Kimura Takeo’s strong visual sense make this a gripping and yet incredibly silly B movie. Some scenes were instantly recognisable due to homages in more recent films, and a little bit of creative license with the Bond franchise.

The film jolts along in a series of episodes to tell the story of Hanada (Shishido Joe), the Number 3 hitman. He would like to be Number 1, and is generally quite efficient and creative. But one day he is distracted by a butterfly landing on the barrel of his gun, and accidentally shoots an innocent bystander. He goes on the run, sometimes aided by death obsessed Misako and sometimes hindered by his wife Mami (Ogawa Mariko). Eventually Number 3 kills many other numbers, Number 1 is sent to kill Number 3. Number 1 must not take a lot of contracts. He likes to spend a lot of time on destroying his target’s spirit before he kills them so he moves in with Hanada. A ridiculous and suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues.

The characters live in funky modern apartments and dress in conservative but very 60s fashion. Except Mami who is usually naked. I actually didn’t recognise her at first when I saw her with clothes on. They drive cars with fins and hang out at nightclubs. Misako (Mari Annu) is obsessed with death and fills her apartment with dead creatures, especially butterflies and birds. Hanada’s methods are effective and surprisingly entertaining. There’s a cool trick with shooting up a drainpipe and some nice work making his escape on top of a miniature hot air balloon. When Hanada has a breakdown the screen dissolves into stylised animated graphics showing his confusion and panic. And the music is jazzy and sometimes incongruously chipper. It’s a decidedly modern film, with the endless ranking of hitmen and underworld niceties one of the few nods to tradition that manifests.

Hanada is not a good man, or a particularly likeable one, but I found myself cheering him on at times. Shishido manages to be lugubrious and comedic at once, largely due to his chubby chipmunk face. He is obsessed with sex and the smell of boiled rice is his aphrodisiac of choice. Hanada and Mami seem to share a penchant for uncomfortable sex in precarious locations, and that is about it. She hooks up with his boss Yabuhara (Tamagawa Isao), and eventually tries to kill Hanada. She was probably cold and tired of shagging while dangling off the top of the staircase. And some of his habits were gross. That crop top may be one of his worst decisions among so many other really bad decisions. Hanada knows someone will come to kill him, but he isn’t Number 3 for nothing and he managed a spirited defence. Even in the midst of all the impending doom there are moments of bright joyfulness as when Hanada starts playfully chasing a balloon, and a few “ew!” moments like Number 1 going Number 1 because they hadn’t yet worked out a toilet protocol, or Misako basically being flame grilled. It’s quite a rollercoaster.

Misako is the opposite of Mami in many ways. She is passively waiting for death, and wants Hanada to kill her. She sleeps with him to seal the deal but he then decides he loves her so he won’t kill her even though she only submitted in order to get him to kill her. I tell you these people have issues. Misako’s apartment is littered with dead butterflies and birds, in a kind of goth twist on crazy cat lady syndrome. Mari Annu is deadpan and her eyeliner game is strong. She drifts through scenes as though she already knows how everything will end and doesn’t care. Ogawa Mariko is passionate, fiery, and always wanting more. They are so completely opposite that neither character seems at all real.

In a film made from improbable and inadvisable actions, I still have some questions. I can accept that perhaps a belt buckle may stop a bullet. I could just about accept that a ladies hairband might perhaps deflect a bullet. But I cannot accept that firing a gun from inside a car will not break the windscreen but still kill a man on the outside. And, if you were hiding from a hitman, would you drive a convertible with the top down? Was Hanada dangling upside down from the ceiling trying to shoot a sniper? Some things really deserve to be explained. But you’ll need to see it to believe it when it comes to the ending.

The film is bordering on insane and I can easily believe nobody knew what they were about to shoot. It’s such a mess but it is oh so assured, stylish, and bleakly funny. 3 ½ stars!

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