Terror and Architecture in Branded to Kill
“In my films, time and place are nonsense”
–Seijun Suzuki, in an interview with Midnight Eye
Branded to Kill is an unconventional yakuza (Japanese gangster) film with an uncanny sense of space and time. Nikkatsu, the company that produced it, fired the director, contract worker Seijun Suzuki, because they felt it was “incomprehensible.” While that’s too strong a charge to level at the film, it does embody the nonsensical manner in which setting and plot develop. Buildings and even smaller structures like fences oppress characters, the city fragmented into anonymous locations populated by unknown people and strange fetishized objects. Like a Magritte painting in motion, Branded to Kill combines heightened reality with a feeling of inevitable doom. If the nonsensical space in the film is oppressive, the sense of time is circular, as the events we see unfold as if they are fated repetitions of earlier ones. Early in the film, two gangsters fall dead after a fatal embrace. Much the same happens once again later. Interspersed in this plot are darkly comic action set pieces that bring out a more humorous aspect to the film’s aesthetics, though humor never disentangles itself from the specter of death. Most of the visual jokes show death as a punchline, as in the clip below.
Here we have a sample of the outrageous as Suzuki built it: our protagonist Hanada kills his mark, an optometrist, by firing a gun through a pipe connected to the sink. The precise logistics of the scene are unimportant. What matters is that Suzuki can stitch these two moments together in editing and make them comprehensible to the audience. Similarly, earlier in the film when Hanada’s drunken partner rushes at the No. 2 assassin, Koh, Suzuki puts a harsh cut between running and impact. All of a sudden, the two men are caught, armed to the teeth, in a deadly embrace that leaves both of them cold on the ground. While film editing always “punctuates” scenes, here the grammar of the film is choppy and brutal, often creating surreal juxtapositions. The film’s lack of cohesive time and space becomes especially evident in an early scene where Hanada encounters one of the femmes fatales in the story, Misako. Suzuki cuts back and forth between Misako and Hanada standing in the rain by the side of the road and another scene of Hanada’s wife showering. Ambient sounds remain consistent between them, establishing water as a leitmotif and linking the two women together. They remain separate in time and space, but the film has a seeming difficulty distinguishing between them for a few moments.
In general, live action filmmaking, even on location, creates its own flattened space, an imaginary spectacle reflective of but distinct from the locations themselves. Innumerable films have taken place in New York City, but through selection and editing each work creates its “own” city. Suzuki’s use of location shooting in Japanese urban areas, however, makes a significant difference to the storytelling. Rather than building his eccentric dreamworld out of whole cloth, as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his film derives its expressionism as a reflection of the rapidly changing metropolitan areas in which he films. Indeed, I would argue that the architecture of the city, the houses, and the cramped apartments the characters inhabit exhibit a determining role in the aesthetics of the film. Branded to Kill, then, derives not only from particular aesthetic traditions––film noir, Kabuki theatre, gangster movies, a kind of sexually-charged existentialism also found in the French New Wave––but also particular aesthetic locations.
Two of the film’s lengthy standoffs between Hanada and his foe, the mysterious No. 1 assassin, takes place between two danchi buildings. These monumental apartment buildings are a common sight in postwar Japanese cities, looming over the streets like honeycombs blown up to superhuman proportions.
The mystery and anonymity of the rest of the film echoes in the architecture, which has that classic Fordist assembly-line quality that defines modern housing projects. Hanada peers out of the window of his tiny apartment at a wall of blank windows. Any one of them could house expert killer No. 1. And the cyclical nature of the plot also reminds one of the danchi, where every unit is private, separate from the others, and yet appears like an empty repetition. What might strike a passerby as the bland domesticity of such a building transforms into a terrifying unknown. Hanada frantically scans the landscape for any clue as to his rival’s location, but to no avail. Everything is too big, too disconnected, too vast to be comprehended in this nightmare world. Even when No. 1, who is playing a sick mind game with our protagonist, moves into the apartment with Hanada, we get little sense of what his domicile actually looks like. Everything is veiled in obscurity, the small scale “cell” of the apartment appearing just as labyrinthine as the city itself.
These are all classic traits of film noir, and along with shots that voyeuristically peer through windows, chain fences, and railings, attempts to embed the psychology of the characters in the mise-en-scene. Yet Branded to Kill’s Freudian motifs––the dead birds, moths, water, and Thanatos bathroom imagery––don’t seem to find many meaningful connections. At one point, Suzuki just splashes flat white images on the screen, with rushing rain and fluttering bugs plaguing our apparently deluded Hanada. It goes one step further than most noir, breaking out of the scenery itself to assault the audience with a striking theatrical “layer” placed on top of the action. Once again, the nonsensical nature of time and space becomes dramatically apparent.
Within this monochrome delirium, one can find a few comforts. Hanada and his wife Mami engage in rough, fairly explicit sex more than once, with Mami being depicted nude more often than not. She rarely has clothes on except for her prized furs. Misako, the femme fatale, is also intensely sexualized, albeit mostly through implication at first. But Hanada’s most consistent relationship in the film is with the smell of boiling rice.
Rice cookers are an essential consumer item in post-war Japan, a symbol of modern conveniences and prosperity. In the shot above, we can see how fetishistically it’s framed; the language the film uses reminds one of advertising. Hanada, ostensibly a cold-blooded killer who can rattle off aphorisms like “women and drink kill a killer” blithely also has an unbounded attachment to cooked rice. Like all base desires, the cooked rice is a deadly temptation, something that top killers are supposed to transcend. Hanada, though, cannot purify himself. The sunglasses and slick suit are a façade concealing a flesh and blood human being, after all, albeit one who has no problem murdering for the mob.
We should ask ourselves, though, whether killing for the mob is a unique case that demands a special kind of asceticism––this idea resonates throughout Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime films, especially Le Samouraï––or whether the professional killer is just another kind of professional. Japan’s reconstruction, and its earlier development under the nationalists, depended on the mobilization of a pleasure-denying work ethic that the film explores in its own twisted way. While Mami claims that people are just beasts and should hedonistically milk all the pleasure they can, Hanada’s indulgences in sex and drink are the kind we expect from a salaryman. They’re retreats from a job he takes no particular relish in. Unlike No. 1, who sadistically enjoys toying with victims and killing, our hero wavers between his career and the trappings of success that the work allows him to afford. Eventually, with his house burned to cinders, his wife and love killed by his hand, and the cooked rice nowhere to be found, he dies in pursuit of the championship. The climax of the film even takes place in a boxing gym, framed about as naturalistically as a WWE fight.
Branded to Kill thus explores these tensions with an appropriately disjointed aesthetic, segmenting space and time into shards that thumb their nose at physics or plot convention. This is not only a sign of its aesthetic heritage in film noir and Japanese theatrical traditions, but also its own uncertain time and place in history. It’s pure escapism, yes, but with such a sense of doom and brutality about it that it ends up being a guilty pleasure of sorts. Of course, Suzuki’s film might argue, all pleasures are served with a steaming helping of guilt.