Saturday, 18 February 2012
Branded To Kill & Tokyo Drifter - Seijun Suzuki X 2
Tokyo Drifter (1966) dir. Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani
Branded To Kill (1967) dir. Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Jô Shishido, Kôji Nanbara, Isao
By Greg Klymkiw
Nobody. Seriously. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody - and I'm dead serious - NOBODY ever or will ever make crime pictures like the supremely stylish and (possibly) clinically insane Japanese maestro of strange gangster shoot-em-ups - Seijun Suzuki. In the span of just over a decade, Suzuki directed 40 - count 'em - 40 B-movies for Japan's Nikkatsu studios.
Suzuki's favourite setting was against the backdrop of the Yakuza and his pictures just got increasingly delirious as he continued to grind out one after another. He hit his peak with Nikkatsu in 1966 and 1967 with, respectively, Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill. The latter picture was so confounding, so over-the-top, so disinterested in narrative logic, that the studio fired him - even though he delivered consistent product that made money for Nikkatsu.
He successfully sued the company for wrongful dismissal, but his high ideals and legal victory effectively blacklisted him from making a movie for over ten years.
Tokyo Drifter, shot in lurid technicolor and scope a pure visceral rollercoaster ride of violence and - I kid you not - musical numbers. Even John Woo in his Hong Kong prime NEVER delivered such inspired nuttiness.
The plot, such as it is, involves a loyal hit man, Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) who respects and acquiesces to his mob boss' desire to go straight. However, Tetsu is one bundle of trouble and every rival gang is drawn to creating a nightmare for his boss. Tetsu does the only thing honour will allow - he imposes a strange self-exile and becomes a drifter; a man without a country, so to speak. Loyalty, only goes so far, however, and when he realizes he's been set-up as a fall-guy, there is hell to pay.
One action scene after another is shot in near-fluorescent colour with lurid, yet stunning backdrops. The guns blaze and the blood flows freely. I'm also happy to declare that the climactic shootout ranks way up there with all the greats.
Oh, have I mentioned yet that there are musical numbers?
Tokyo Drifter made absolutely no sense to the top brass at Nikkatsu and they demanded that Suzuki tone it down for his next movie.
And he lied.
The next picture was the hypnotically demented Branded to Kill. Shot in glorious widescreen black and white with wall-to-wall sex, violence and tons of delectable nudity, it told the tale of hit man Goro Hanada (Jô Shishido) who is currently rated as Killer #3. When he screws up a job, his status in the Yakuza is threatened and soon, he finds himself the target of several hit men and hit ladies (including his mistress and wife). And soon, he is embroiled in a cat and mouse dance of death with the almost-ghost-like Killer #1.
Like Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill has absolutely no need or respect for issues like continuity and narrative clarity. Suzuki can barely acknowledge the plot and in its stead, stages one brilliantly shot and choreographed action set-piece after another.
If Luis Bunuel had been Japanese, not even he would have approached the surrealistic heights that Suzuki ascends to so dazzlingly.
Branded to Kill is populated with some utterly delicious babes - all of whom sport guns and remove their clothing a lot. Our hero Goro, is played by the suave, ultra-cool Jô Shishido. With his odd puffy cheekbones and wry expression, Shisedo invests his role with steely intensity. The movie oozes with style like lava chugging out of a roiling volcano. The stunning black and white photography is worthy of John Alton's great noir work and the movie is driven by a terrific score that blends ultra-cool jazz styling with Ennio Morricone-influence spaghetti-riffs with crazed orchestral action genre music as if performed by the Kronos Quartet on crack cocaine.
If the picture has one crowning glory (and frankly, it has many) it surely must be Goro's fetish for the smell of boiling rice. Any excuse Suzuki can give his hero to demand it and then sniff away with abandon he manages to find it. Sometimes, there isn't even a good reason for it. Sometimes, it's just the thing to do. Sometimes, a man's just got to sniff boiling rice.
This, I understand. I hope you do, too.
If not, go to Hell.
"Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded To Kill" have been released with mind-bogglingly stunning Blu-Ray transfers on the Criterion Collection label. Both films are replete with fine added content, but ultimately, it's the movies that count. These are keepers and belong in any self-respecting cineaste's collection.