Director: Seijun Suzuki
Writer: Hachiro Guryu
DP: Kazue Nagatsuka
Editor: Mutsuo Tanji
Score: Naozumi Yamamoto
Producer: Kaneo Iwai
Starring: Jo Shishido, Annu Mari, Koji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 1 hr. 37 min.
There's a scene in Branded to Kill in which two men are sitting next to each other, one charged with killing the other. The killer is so vigilant that he won't even get up to use the bathroom if it means taking his eyes off his target. So, he urinates in his own shoe. It's a ridiculous act that makes him look silly. Or does it? It's true that it exposes the inherent absurdity in the killer's superhuman determination, but at the same time his total lack of hesitation or concern adds an unnerving edge to his presence.
This is how Branded to Kill works. It's funny, but that doesn't undercut the elements that are taken seriously. The film contrasts comedy with forceful, direct representations of its characters' emotions, and the former becomes the perfect background for the latter.
Branded to Kill is the story of Goro Hanada, an assassin who works for an underground organization and has an odd affinity for smelling boiled rice. The organization ranks the assassins against each other, and Goro holds the third-highest rank. He meets a mysterious woman named Misako who assigns him to carry out a near-impossible assassination; he fails when a butterfly lands on the barrel of his gun, causing him to accidentally kill an innocent bystander. The organization marks him for death, and other assassins subject him to various attacks while he struggles with his inability to kill Misako.
Mel Brooks said: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open manhole and die." Consider what all this really entails: Walking into an open sewer is not just a bad thing that happens to someone, it's something that could only happen to a person who was not paying attention to their surroundings. Also, the consequences that befall this person are grossly disproportionate to what they did wrong. Of course it's not true that all people will find it funny if someone literally walked into an open manhole and died, but the important points here are that comedy comes with a deserving target, consequences disproportionate to what they did wrong, and (perhaps most importantly) an element of unreality that suspends the seriousness of the consequences. What makes the target "deserving" could be anything, even something as simple as not expecting something to happen, as long as the whole delivery creates a dissonance between sympathy and schadenfreude for the butt of the joke (I'm not saying all comedy necessarily follows this model, but at least some of it does).
Seijun Suzuki's comedy in Branded to Kill depends on characters doing absurd things: one man jumps and dances as someone shoots around his feet, but keeps dancing even after the bullets stop; Goro has an addiction to sniffing boiled rice; another killer insists that Goro lock arms with him everywhere he goes. Suzuki also makes them the butt of the joke in some action scenes, cutting to seemingly impossible conclusions to the action. Either way, Suzuki undercuts the seriousness of how his characters do their jobs.
On the other hand, he's not distant from them at all. He puts us in direct contact with their inner lives with surreal, maximalist flourishes. Goro becomes associated with fire, while Misako, the woman who becomes his undoing, is constantly surrounded by rain and the overwhelmingly loud sound of rushing water, even in locations where it doesn't make sense. Misako lives in an apartment in which every surface is inexplicably covered in moths and butterflies; just as Goro struggles with how Misako derails his life, he struggles with how a butterfly landing on the barrel of his gun derailed his career. Later in the film, when a killer pursuing Goro forces him to reevaluate the way he looks at his surroundings, we see several shots of the whole city in negative.
The result of Suzuki's contrast between comedy and expressionism is a film that exudes confidence; it welcomes the audience to laugh at how outlandish it is, but thoroughly indulges in outlandishness. The film does as it pleases, even while denying its characters the right to do as they please. It undermines its characters, inviting you to laugh at how self-serious they are when the world they're in is so bizarre, but it you can see the torment they feel at being undermined. Because of this, we experience the film's aesthetic as if it were a dominating, godlike force.
And it's a great aesthetic experience: it's incredibly inventive, and yet also derives from the evocative light and shadows of film noir. It surprises the viewer by suddenly changing the focal points of shots, or setting them up to believe they're seeing one perspective when it's actually another. The very beginning of the film is almost dizzying in how quickly it forces an initially weightless image into a rigid framework. The aforementioned surreal flourishes make some scenes utterly bizarre, but more striking for it. Suzuki said his goal with Branded to Kill was to create the most entertaining film possible, and he succeeded with a film that was fully realized within a thoroughly unique framework of entertainment.
The film is like its own main character, Goro; you want to laugh at outsized parts of his character, like his rice fetish or the way he and his wife will run about and debauch their entire house. But he's an impossibly talented assassin when he's serious, and the excessive energy and quickness with which he moves is as much a part of that as it is a part of his frivolous home life. Branded to Kill is funny, somber, and coolly detached all at once, and none of those things are in spite of the others. Rather, they're all interdependent.