“Branded To Kill” (“Koroshi No Rakuin”): Chris D. reviews a favorite Japanese yakuza film

By and on May 19, 2015

Chris D. is the singer/songwriter of the bands The Flesh Eaters and Divine Horsemen.  He is also an authority on Japanese film and the author of several books, so we asked him to tell us about one of his favorites, and he sent us this review of Branded to Kill.

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“A tour-de-force masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. Not a traditional yakuza film per se, although probably the closest to some kind of genre. Extreme violence as well as dreamlike surrealism envelopes hitman, Shishido, who we can only deduce is going insane.

One particular scene where he shoots up a drainpipe, hitting an eye doctor in the eye who’s just removed a patient’s glass eye, is simultaneously funny and shocking. Through no fault of his own, he bungles his next job when a butterfly settles on the sight of his high-powered rifle. A stoic hitwoman (Mari) driving a sportscar, a dead bird with a nail through its throat hanging from the dash rearview, has a strange affinity with Shishido. Despite the fact she’s been assigned to kill him for his foul-up, Shishido develops an attraction for her. They make love in a shadowy room filled with dead butterflies.

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There are many other images of like strangeness, and this is one film I can recommend without reservation whether there’s English subtitles or not. A cross between Eraserhead-era Lynch, Sam Fuller, Jean-Pierre Melville, Luis Bunuel, Fellini and ?.

Suzuki is a true original. He’d made scores of yakuza, action and exploitation films at Nikkatsu Studios starting in the mid-fifties. Branded To Kill was the straw that broke the Nikkatsu president’s proverbial back. Suzuki had already been warned about his eccentric visual touches in such films as Tattooed Life (Irezumi Ichidai) (1965) and Tokyo Drifter  (Tokyo Nagaremono) (1966).

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After Branded To Kill, he was fired. Luckily, the film was still released. The bottom line was so tenuous that Nikkatsu needed every bit of product to release. They couldn’t afford to shelve a film, which is probably what would have happened had it been an American production. Surprisingly enough, there was a genuine outcry at his dismissal.

His films had been steadily developing cult status amongst students and intellectuals as well as others in the film community. However, even their public protests and demonstrations could not get Suzuki reinstated at Nikkatsu. He ended up suing them. The case dragged on for years before he finally won. Nikkatsu was basically producing nothing but roman porno sex films by then and the industry joined together in basically blackballing Suzuki.

In the meantime, Suzuki survived the years between 1967 – 1977 (when his next feature, Tale Of Sorrow And Sadness aka Hishu Monogatari was finally released) by directing commercials.”

~ Chris D.

Branded To Kill aka Koroshi No Rakuin, 1967, 91 min. Dir. Seijun Suzuki w/ Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Isao Tamagawa, Hiroshi Minami, Kosuke Hisamatsu, Hiroshi Engawa, Iwae Arai, Hiroshi Nagashi (4 stars) (available from the Criterion Collection)

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Chris D. is a writer, producer, director, actor and musician. He produced three seminal albums of the LA punk and Paisley Underground  scenes: Fire of Love by the Gun Club, Days of Wine and Roses by Dream Syndicate, and Gravity Talks by Green on Red. He wrote directed the movie I Pass For Human. He is also the author of fiction and non-fiction; his latest book is the 800-page Gun And Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980.

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Photo of Chris D. by Lydia Lunch for the book Sex and Guts, published in 2003 by Kelly Dessaint, featuring an interview with Chris D.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.