Suzuki Seijun was the most brilliantly innovative of the directors who came up through the ranks of the Nikkatsu studio in its postwar years, but he struggled commercially and was consequently assigned to second-tier projects. Meanwhile other young directors, such as Kurahara Koreyoshi and Masuda Toshio, made hit after action hit, and gained a measure of clout with the organisation as a result.
Suzuki had his successes, including a series of films with teen idol Wada Koji, but he didn’t truly come into his own until his 28th film as director, Youth of the Beast (Yaju no Seishun, 1963). Suzuki transformed this programmer about a cop on a mission into a genre classic by means of his startling visual inventions, and his absurdist sense of humour. He continued to experiment, relatively free from studio pressure. “The producers let the director do his job and didn’t interfere,” he once told me. “The set was the director’s territory.” But he only gained a cult following, and got little praise from the studio, which wanted crowd-pleasers. He finally responded with Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no Mon, 1963), a daring (for the era) venture into Eros that drew audiences, but his box-office success proved fleeting.
Undeterred, Suzuki made his films ever more Suzuki-esque, until Branded to Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967).
In this 40th film for Nikkatsu, Suzuki went completely off the genre map into uncharted territory. The plot has to do with the hero’s desperate climb up the hitman hierarchy, a job for a sultry client (Mari Annu) that goes disastrously wrong, a deceitful wife (Ogawa Mariko) who nearly does him in, and an implacable hitman rival (Nanbara Koji) who takes up where she left off. Suzuki’s interpretation of it all is comically, deliriously dream-like, with narrative logic taking a holiday.
The hero, Hanada Goro (Shishido Joe), becomes romantically obsessed with his client, and trapped in a contest of wills with his rival, known only as Number One, that is almost certain to end in death – a fate he is torn between embracing and escaping. Gobbling white rice to boost his virility, he wants to embrace the client – a half-Japanese, half-Indian femme fatale who has a thing for dead birds and butterflies. (One of the former decorates the rear-view mirror of her sports car, the latter, the walls of her apartment.)
Hunted by the implacable Number One (Nanbara), Goro makes a sweaty, desperate stand in his ultra-modern flat, fighting like a trapped animal. In a bizarre twist, he ends up hand-cuffed to Number One, as part of a test of skills and wills. Finally, he accepts an invitation to a mano a mano showdown with his nemesis in a boxing arena.
Viewed as a radical deconstruction of the hard-boiled genre, or a Kafka-esque essay on the waking nightmare of modern life, Branded to Kill makes excellent sense (though Suzuki did not make such interpretations himself). Viewed as a programme picture for action fans, it makes little sense at all, save perhaps as a gesture of defiance or evidence of professional collapse.
Evidently taking the latter view after seeing the film and its dismal box office returns, Nikkatsu president Hori Kyusaku proclaimed the film “incomprehensible” and fired Suzuki in April 1968. Soon thereafter Nikkatsu denied an organisation called Cineclub Study Group prints for a planned retrospective of his films. This led his supporters, including critics, distributors and others in the film world, to form the Seijun Suzuki Joint Struggle Committee to demand Suzuki’s reinstatement at Nikkatsu, and the use of the prints for the retrospective. Suzuki finally won a court settlement against the studio in 1976, but he found film work hard to come by.
In 1977 he returned to the screen with A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (Hishu Monogatari, 1977) for Shochiku, but the film, which depicted the rise and fall of a woman pro golfer, was slated by critics and ignored by fans.
Suzuki finally made his comeback in 1980 with the independently produced Zigeunerweisen, a ghost story set in the Taisho period (1912-1926) in which the barriers between the dead and living dissolve. The film won numerous awards, including the jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Suzuki made two more films in what he called his “Taisho Trilogy”: Heat Shimmer Theater (Kageroza, 1981) and Yumeji (1991). During this period his work for Nikkatsu, led by Branded to Kill, was revived and celebrated abroad by critics and fans, with Suzuki being variously compared to Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard and Samuel Fuller. Branded to Kill also influenced many younger filmmakers, including Kitano Takeshi, Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-wook, Wong Kar-wai and Quentin Tarantino.
In 2001 Suzuki released Pistol Opera, a remake of Branded to Kill that starred Esumi Makiko as a hitwoman and Hira Mikijiro as an older, wheelchair-bound Hanada Goro, made with characteristic panache and style. His last film, Princess Raccoon (Operetta Tanuki Goten, 2005), was a singing and dancing “operetta” based on a Japanese folk tale that starred Zhang Ziyi as a raccoon dog (tanuki) in human form, and Odagiri Joe as the prince who falls in love with her.
Following Suzuki’s death at age 93 on February 13, 2017 (he died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), Branded to Kill was cited by many as his masterpiece. For its 19th edition the FEFF will screen a digitally restored version as a farewell tribute to Japanese cinema’s ultimate maverick.