Branded to Kill – Seijun Suzuki – Japan 1966; Nanbura Koji, Jo Shishido
Re-viewed 23 March 2019; Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket £7
How to cook the rice
What to make of this film: except to say that it is the product of a totally schizoid society, a society ripped open by a cultural hurricane called the USA; and it’s scenario and imagery mediated by a nouvelle vague film making sensibility.
Played out to a very cool jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, Suzuki’s episodic story line, links a series of increasingly violent confrontations set in the world of the Yakuza. Branded to Kill reflects Japan as a broken society seen through the multiplexed reflections of smashed shards of a zen mirror. The here and now as a nightmare. A document produced by a defeated society, but made with the extraordinary lucidity about this state of affairs: a twisted Samurai gangster culture shaped by an ethos of sadism played out in deterritorialised spaces with guns and American cars.
At the centre of the film is the image of the pot of rice. Rice, the constant symbol of the real Japan and of its national religion, Shintoism. This image of a pot full of cooked rice is returned to regularly. The pot belonging to the protagonist exists as if in fairytale. The pot is always a full and nourishes Goro Hanada the number 3 killer less physically but more psychically: a super food that is the source of his self belief. Rice is his favorite food, the food he craves. Yet the pot is not a traditional pot: it is an electric rice cooker. The white rice fluffs up perfectly when cooked in this gadget. The rice cooker is an automatic device that is a double sign: a sign of the quintessential world of the American can-do – slick electric efficient non traditional and – also the food that is the core of Japanese culture, symbolizing genesis and purity. The rice pot, at the centre of the Branded to Kill is a cursive elegant statement about Japan in the 1960’s: a traditional culture cooked up in the encompassing embrace of a alien society.
For the most part, Suzuki uses the film as a full blown suicidal assault on traditional Japanese values and sensibilities. Using a language form similar to New Wave, Suzuki plays with cinematic possibility rather than the formulaic Hollywood production narratives. Under Suzuki’s direction the actors play their roles in a cool mode disengaged from emotional embrace. The action digresses, stops, rewinds as violence and sex intertwine and twist in a pastiche of American iconic imagery: the moll, the gun, the gangster are taken to extremes in sequences that are exercises in a parody of controlled ironic Japanese detachment. In Branded to Kill the various sequences comprising: chase fight torture or sex are defined by stylistic detachment and frequently use the sound track as a deintensifier of the extreme action. For example when the sexy gangster’s moll is being tortured with a blow torch, her face retains an amused insouciant playful demeanor as she hums to herself. An attitude of amused exteriority audio and visual effectively deintensifies the horror of the blow torch sequence transforming it into something like an amusing game, a childish conceit.
In Branded to Kill, Suzuki has treated his script in such a way that the acting and the fractured plot make the movie an assemblage of the world of the child. Perhaps this is endemic in the gangster movie genre: because certainly both Edward G Robinson and James Cagney both had baby faces, and there is in the violence of the gangster something of the fury of the wronged and angered child; or of the defeated nation.
Kurosawa’s series of Samurai themed movies look like a conscious project to restore to Japan the memory of the noble tradition of the warrior within Japanese society. Suzuki with his Yakuza movies is pointing to the Japan as he saw it. Japan as a traumatized society overwhelmed by the experience of defeat and the invasion of American commercial culture. A Japan that was struggling to iconically re-define itself. A society that yearned for rice, but was having to come to terms with coca-cola and hamburgers.