Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Branded to Kill

The avant-garde lives next door to the B-movie ghettos, and Seijun Suzuki razes the fences with Branded to Kill. Theoretically, there’s a plot—assassins, butterflies, betrayal, something something, death—but its presence is more out of habit than choice. If nothing else, it provides a structure for Suzuki to dynamite, and images sprout like flowers from the ruins: a dead woman’s hair swirling in the toilet, a live woman’s face shellacked with rain, an apartment wall pinned full of dead butterflies. Whatever emotional coherence lacking in the story’s discombobulated gangster clichés is found in these startling visions of annihilation. Not that the film is entirely abstract: Suzuki makes a concentrated effort to articulate this loopy system of ranked hire killers jockeying for position while engaging in slapstick assassinations or other inexplicable adventures. Yet the director’s inner anarchist will not be calmed, and if the film sometimes resembles a towering monument built upon a swamp, that’s probably the point. Suzuki is a cinematic saboteur par excellence, but his primary target is most often himself. Every character with more than one line may be a murderer, but this is still a film where the hero has a fetish for sniffing boiling rice, which does tend to somewhat deflate the tough-guy mystique that comes with being the third-ranked killer in the country, world, or whatever.

Over 30 years later, Suzuki would return to this same set-up for Pistol Opera, a vastly different yet equally powerful take on the material. Sporting the director’s trademark monochromatic colours, the later film emphasizes the unreality of the story, stylizing the settings into something theatrical, treating the characters as little more than lifelike dolls to be posed in elaborate playhouses. Freed from the shackles of his Nikkatsu studio contract, Suzuki would completely unleash his formalist tendencies in Pistol Opera as he stared down death with a steeliness that would make even the unflappable Joe Shishido tremble. Politely put, Branded to Kill is just slightly more unhinged (actually, it’s utterly bugfuck). Like its successor, the film is obsessed with mortality, but it offers the frenzy of youth in the place of the serenity of age. At once terrified and mischievous, Branded to Kill doesn’t gaze into the abyss so much as just throw a few firecrackers into the void and then run like hell. Perhaps there is some comfort to be gleaned from Suzuki’s conception of living with death as a hyper-violent buddy comedy. Perhaps it’s just more fun to laugh as you tumble into your grave. Or perhaps the real truth is found in how Hanada, No. 3 killer and No. 1 chump, faces a paralyzing despair like something out of Beckett: “I must kill, I can’t kill, I’ll kill.” What does it matter? The final outcome is the same.

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