Which film is the genre that undermines the most

Criticism from the FILMSTARTS editorial team
By Björn Becher
Seijun Suzuki is one of those filmmakers who led a shadowy existence for a long time and suddenly rushed into the consciousness of film fans in recent years. When you talked about the great Japanese directors, you almost always talked about Ozu, Kurosawa, Imamura or Fukasaku, and now also about Suzuki. Perhaps initiated by Jim Jarmusch's “Ghost Dog” or the general awareness of Asian cinema, Suzuki films have become popular parts of retrospectives in this millennium. Probably the world's best DVD label, Criterion, which only publishes important classics and contemporary documents from film history, included Suzuki's “Branded To Kill” in the Criterion Collection series very early on. In addition to “Tokyo Drifter”, “Branded To Kill” is also the most important work in Suzuki's oeuvre. The pulpy and visually outstandingly staged profile killer story did not bring him fame after production, but at times almost ended his career.

Hanada (Jo Shisido) is the third best killer in his organization, which is why he is only “Killer No. 3 "is called. He hopes to rise soon, but he does not pursue this by all means, he also lives happily in a relationship with his wife (Mariko Ogawa). But when suddenly the mysterious and deadly Misako (Mari Annu) appears on the scene and gives him an order, his whole life changes. He himself gets on the hit list and even the person he trusted most is suddenly no longer on his side. Soon he will also have “Killer No. 1 "(Koji Nambara) opposite ...

When Suzuki was filming Branded To Kill in 1967, he was one of many full-time directors at Nikkatsu. The studio is best known for its yakuza productions of various quality, which were almost filmed on the assembly line. The directors were only expected to deliver fast, standard products for the Japanese cinema market that clearly conformed to the rules of the genre and were tailored to the great Japanese actor stars of the time. Because these names would lure audiences to the cinema on their own. In the course of his career at Nikkatsu, Suzuki took more and more small liberties and began to experiment within the genre framework. With “Tokyo Drifter” in 1966 he seemed to have crossed the line. The brightly colored look, combined with the style of French gangster cinema in a film that constantly undermines genre conventions and uses the Cinemascope format to celebrate artistic images, was by no means what Nikkatsu wanted. But they gave him another chance and Suzuki used it to - as one would say today - to show the gentlemen of Nikkatsu the outstretched middle finger.

Ridiculous criticism of the bright colors from “Tokyo Drifter”, “Branded To Kill” became a black and white film. Otherwise everything stayed the same. The first script, a standard story about a killer going astray, only served Suzuki as a treatment and starting point. He got involved early in the development process and instead of shooting a simple story of a killer between the fronts, as required, he poaches through the genre again, citing and undermining it. He combines the style and elements of film noir with the nouvelle vague. He alternates between hard brutality and slapstick. He combines drama with humor and does not leave the viewer clear in any scene whether he will not drag himself into the absurd in the next moment or slide into the surreal. Towards the end he finally breaks all habits and expectations when he turns the two mortal enemies No. 1 and No. 3 into suspicious roommates in the hilarious but also very exciting last half hour. This goes against the typical viewing habits more than once and makes it difficult for the first-time viewer, who is unfamiliar with the director's work, to keep following everything and to maintain tension over the entire 90 minutes, but this initial viewing is still worthwhile. Because the mere fact that “Branded To Kill” is an incomparable visual treat makes it a classic that was probably just ahead of its time. [1]

And with every further viewing, “Branded To Kill” wins in an impressive way. Every scene looks even more sophisticated, the impressive set, which is almost another leading actor, the unusual but immensely skilled dramaturgy ... all of this becomes clearer and when film composer and music producer John Zorn (including Michael Glawoggers Workingman's Death) writes in an essay, "Each time I see it I discover something new — it's like seeing it for the first time." [2], he doesn't exaggerate, but hits the nail on the head.

The film mentioned at the beginning Ghost dog by Jim Jarmusch (who also saw it as a homage to Suzuki) is based on “Branded To Kill”. The stories are similar, Jarmusch has also adopted a sequence of scenes almost one-to-one and both works have in common their consistent refusal of the usual dramaturgy of the “professional killer becomes the hunted” theme. Instead, the films are more interested in their characters without presenting their inner workings to the viewer on the presentation plate.

Despite all its brilliance, Nikkatsu, where all they wanted was simple and clearly understandable action cinema, was so appalled that Suzuki, who made over 40 films for the studio, dismissed it without further ado. His career then seemed to come to an end despite some TV engagements and a self-financed attempt on the cinema stage, until he impressively returned at the Berlinale in 1980 with "Gypsy ways" and in 2005 at the age of 80 with "Princess Raccoon" shot his last film to date.

Today he enjoys the old recognition even with Nikkatsu. At the retrospectives with the most important works of the studio, “Branded To Kill” is always announced as a masterpiece, as the film deserves. A masterpiece for which the director was sued at the time. After all, times are still better than today, when the production of such a film, which was created in the studio system but was emancipating itself from it, would probably have been stopped earlier.

[1] The amusing statement from Suzuki in an interview with Japan expert Tom Mes about this: "The best thing for a movie is to have a lot of people come to see it when it's released. But back then my films weren't so successful. Now, thirty years later, a lot of young people come to see my films. So either my films were too early or your generation came too late. " (Source: http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/seijun_suzuki.shtml)

[2] Zorn's essay is available online here: http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=38&eid=55§ion=essay&page=1
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