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A gripping crime thriller on the level of Hitchcock's best.
on 9 March 2002
When "Branded to Kill" was released in 1967 it caused quite a stir in Japan. Critics condemned it, the director Suzuki fell out of favour with his boss, the director of the movie company Ninkatsu distanced himself from it and considered it a mistake to have released it. While the presence of the yakuza is minimal in the movie, due to the focus organised crime one can place it in this genre.
And this is likely why the film inspired such uproar. 1967 was still the age of the 'noble yakuza' movie (with as central heroes Tsuruta Koji and Takakura Ken) resembling the samurai films with their honourable wandering swordsmen. They dealt with noble gangsters keeping to the old rules and passing through life with honour who were pushed to the limit by crude (usually western or Chinese) gangster brutes that tried to destroy the Japanese traditional ways. Only later, when Fukasaku Kinji appeared on the scene with such films as "Tarnished Code of the Yakuza", "Yakuza Graveyard", and "Cops VS Thugs", nihilism and decadence became the trademark of the yakuza movie, with Sugurawa Bunta as its leading protagonist.
"Branded to Kill" is a contes cruel, a dark and violent movie with touches of black humour. A professional hitman (no.3 on the national list of best killers) becomes obsessed with a strange girl that hires him. These elements, the tormented hero and the dangerous female, are very prevalent in Japanese cinema in general, as well as the haunting opening song (usually sung by the protagonist himself) about the contents of the movie. When no.3 accidentally shoots the wrong person only his death is adequate atonement for his foul-up. There's a price on his head, and no.1 is the man who's going for him.
From that moment on the movie becomes a roller coaster of gunfights, intrigue, despair, violence, sexual obsession, and existential torment. Unlike Tsuruta and Takakura the protagonist is a lamentable anti-hero that tortures the dazed girl and himself, and tries to stay out of the clutches of no.1. The climax of "Branded to Kill" is absolutely one of the best in any crime movie, and attentive viewers might recognise scenes that have later been copied by later American crime movies.
It is my sincere hope that with the release of these Japanese yakuza movies on DVD we'll soon see the masterpieces of Fukasaku Kinji as well (his recent Battle Royalle, although no yakuza movie, is now also available on DVD). He is one of the most interesting directors of the 70's, and should receive some recognition in the west.