Criterion Corner: Nobody Ever Suspects the Butterfly: Branded to Kill (1967)

I make movies that make no sense and make no money.
--Seijun Suzuki

Branded to Kill (1967) is a farcical romp within the yakuza genre, a film so outside the studio norms that it got director Sejun Suzuki fired and subsequently blacklisted from making films for over a decade. Although it hampered Suzuki's career, it also had the side effect of turning him into a counter-cultural icon, especially when he sued Nikkatsu Studio and won. Although the film was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, it has since been hailed as an absurdist cult classic in the years since.

The story is centered around a yakuza hitman named Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) who is ranked third in Japan (yes, apparently there is a ranking system). He gets embroiled in various missions that eventually have disastrous results which start affecting his very sanity. One of Goro's quirks is that he gets sexually aroused by the smell of boiling rice, and he can often be seen half-naked cradling a rice cooker in his lap and vigorously inhaling the contents. 

Goro is satirical take on the cliche overly-serious yakuza film protagonist and somewhat of an anti-hero. He continuously abuses his wife and is withdrawn and selfish, but at the same time he is one of the best assassins in his field. Joe Shishido had cosmetic surgery in real life to enhance his cheekbones which gives him an exaggerated masculine look and this only enhances the ridiculous nature of the Goro.

Suzuki also deconstructs the concept of the "femme fatale" with the character of Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari), a woman with a death wish for herself. Usually the femme fatale trope means harm to the protagonist, but in this case it is subverted because she only wishes to hurt herself. Her apartment is filled with dead birds and pinned up butterfly corpses and her first words to Goro are "My dream is to die". Goro becomes obsessed with her which is a metaphor for his his constant flirting with death and danger since Misako represents the personification of both.

Butterfly imagery is featured prominently and frequently in Branded to Kill and it can have several interpretations. Goro attempts to assassinate a target with his sniper rifle, but his attempt is foiled when a butterfly lands on the tip of his gun which makes him miss the shot. In this case the butterfly represents the idea of capricious nature of life and how chaotic it can be. It's not a coincidence that there is a term in chaos theory dubbed The Butterfly Effect in which a very small change can have much larger repercussions on the future (which it does for Goro within the narrative of the film). Later in the film the butterfly imagery makes another appearance, inside Misako's apartment--her walls are plastered with dried butterflies. Like these preserved butterflies, Misako is beautiful to look at but incredibly fragile and just as one touch can crumble the butterflies, one wrong move can destroy her psyche.

Absurdity rules this film both in its content and in its construction. Suzuki plays around with time and space and the events in the narrative don't always fall into place in a linear fashion. While this can be confusing to the viewer, it lends the atmosphere a surreal, dreamlike feeling. The editing also contributes to the jumbled story and it's interesting to see Suzuki's complete disregard for coherency. Despite not following the rules and forgoing a traditional three-act structure, the film still manages to be engaging mostly thanks to the creative visuals and fantastic cinematography.

Lastly, in the final third of the film Branded to Kill takes a shot at the homoerotic tinged relationships that yakuza films tend to have. Goro is pursued by the number one ranked assassin in the world and this man actually goes as far as moving in with Goro and even sleeping in the same bed as him. They go to the bathroom together and walk around with their arms linked together. What is usually under the surface is brought to the forefront in an over-the-top fashion. The entire film is over-the-top from beginning to end, a journey into the best kind of lunacy, and an experience that only Seijun Suzuki can give you.

--Michelle Kisner