Existential Dread and the Smell of Boiling Rice: A Love Letter to Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)
Hanada Goro (Shishido Joe), Tokyo’s “No. 3 assassin”, walks into a bar; his wife orders a double black label scotch and he asks for boiled white rice. While a lonely trumpet answers a forlorn piano in a languid jazz rendition of the film’s melancholy theme, Hanada, from behind dark sunglasses, makes a deal to transport an important client from Sagami to Nagano for five million yen. When the secret contact number is memorised and burned, Hanada strides past the cook and into the kitchen. He lifts the lid off the electric rice cooker, stands over the steaming pot, and murmurs “I can’t help smelling your perfume”. As he basks in the sweet hot haze rising from the pot, his wife flirts with his lecherous boss in the bar. “I hate that quirk of his,” she says. “He likes the smell of cooking rice more than anything else.”
The sublime absurdity of Suzuki’s deconstructed yakuza film about a rice-sniffing assassin who falls for a mysterious amateur entomologist feels resolutely inimitable, but as Jasper Sharp has pointed out, a broader look at studio Nikkatsu’s output during the 1950s and 1960s throws up a range of titles that could meet its level of unconventionality.1 Western film history’s tendency to privilege Branded to Kill as a uniquely subversive take on the crime genre is inextricably bound up with the fact that Suzuki was fired by the studio after its release, on the grounds that his films were incomprehensible and unprofitable. In 1968, Suzuki famously sued the studio for unfair dismissal, rousing public demonstrations of support from students, fans and other filmmakers, whose anti-establishment fervour seemed to echo the Paris uprisings of May 1968. Suzuki eventually won his case against Nikkatsu in 1971, but he never worked for the studio again and Branded to Kill became a kind of swansong for a career that hadn’t actually ended. But the sometimes limiting effect this film has had on the Suzuki canon never diminishes its gorgeously bizarre avant-garde take on film noir.
Suzuki’s explosive treatment of the crime genre assumes you understand the formula’s conventions already: it dispenses with clear narrative continuity in favour of fragmentary impressions that are electrified by the film’s formal style. Hanada successfully delivers the client relatively early in the film for instance, but becomes both embroiled in an illegal diamond trade and falls in love with Misako (Mari Annu), a mysterious woman who hires him for an assassination job he botches when a butterfly lands on his gun. Although they are sometimes difficult to follow, these related plot lines lead to Hanada’s confrontation with “No. 1”, Tokyo’s top hit man, who challenges him to a series of duals. The final sequence plays out in an empty boxing arena, where after killing No. 1, Hanada accidentally shoots his love, the already wounded Misako. But Suzuki is unwilling to waste time establishing space or character motives. Instead he engages abrupt ellipses which collapse the film’s temporality, atomising the plot into hundreds of meticulously composed moments that seem to perpetually interrupt one another, like the pop music blaring from a car filled with teenagers, which intercepts the tense jazz-driven build up to a shoot-out during Hanada’s first mission.
This cavalier approach to the conventions of the crime film prompts Stephen Teo2 to link Suzuki to Italian horror and giallo-master, Mario Bava, and the expressionistic formal style that colours his films like Blood and Black Lace (1964) resonates particularly with Suzuki’s own use of colour (2000). But Branded to Kill, as well as Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966), make an interesting comparison to the giallo film more broadly, in terms of their shared status as genre films which critique the conditions of late modernity. The settings of these principally urban Italian crime films produced in the 1960s and onwards, for instance, typically eschew recognisable landmarks and other over-represented images of the nation, instead fashioning a heterogeneous, globalised milieu to appeal to local and international audiences. In Japan, at around the same time, Nikkatsu were producing films described as ‘mukokuseki’ (borderless, or of no fixed cultural identity) as part of their commercial strategy to appeal to Japanese youth audiences interested in Western pop culture. Precisely because it aims for this cosmopolitan demographic, Branded to Kill reflects the rapid urbanisation and commercialisation Tokyo had recently undergone during this period, often in playfully absurd ways: at one point, Hanada fires at a target from behind a novelty-sized mechanically-animated cigarette lighter on a billboard. At another, he jumps out the window of a high-rise building and lands safely atop an ascending advertising hot air balloon.
As a number of scholars, including Jaspar Sharp3 have noted, the film’s compositions have a geometric quality that hum with the late-modern architectural styles featured in many of its settings. The camera pans voyeuristically across the visual layers of Hanada’s minimalist apartment as he chases his naked wife around; they have sex on the stairs, on the bed and against the wall, but the sequence is more of an architectural tour than a multi-scene romp, with their figures deliberately reframed by the apartment’s decorative windows and glass doors. Other times space is fragmented through sustained still shots: the spiral staircase, a frosted glass window, the telephone – each become symbols of modernity’s minimalist coolness.
As much as the film revels in this hip aesthetic, the existential dread of film noir’s anti-heroes haunts both Hanada and his doomed femme fatale Misako. But in the place of these earlier crime films’ moral struggles and tormented internal monologues, Branded to Kill offers a series of abrupt gestures: “Where can I pin you?” Misako asks Hanada, as he sits in her apartment stuffing his face like a brute, surrounded by hundreds of butterflies she has pinned to the wall. This deadpan tone coexists with a cartoonish energy: the melancholy of Misako’s claim that her “hope is to die” is heart-wrenching, but avoiding gunfire looks more like a slapstick dance. Like recurrent electric shocks, the editing begins to wreak havoc on Hanada’s consciousness, and when the birdy ornament hanging in Misako’s car is suddenly transformed into the flaccid carcass of a real bird with a pin pushed through its neck, we don’t know if the hallucination is his or ours.
Nevertheless, in the face of the jazz, the scotch and the miniskirts, there is Hanada’s obsession with the smell of boiled rice. The film’s joke is that he needs this to turn him on. As Hanada closes his eyes over the steaming pot of rice and inhales the hot sweet floral vapour, he thinks of Misako. The sound of the rain the night they met also haunts him: the ghost of their impossible future is summoned by the sound of the water hitting the tiles when his wife is in the shower. Crouching over the rice pot, the hot vapours float up and liquefy as they meet his face, becoming the tears the gangster cannot cry.
- Jaspar Sharp, “Seijun Sezuki, Contract Killer,” Branded to Kill DVD Booklet. Shenley: Arrow Video, 2014: pp.3 – 15. ↩
- Stephen Teo, “Seijun Suzuki: Authority in Minority”, Senses of Cinema, July 2000 http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/festival-reports/suzuki/ ↩
- Jaspar Sharp, ibid. ↩