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Japanese Avant-Garde Noir – BRANDED TO KILL

BRANDED TO KILL is delirious cinema at its best.

(We’re taking a little breather from our soundtrack mega-post to bring you today’s review of one of my favorite movies of all time.)

What Samuel Fuller is to American film, Seijun Suzuki is to Japanese cinema – a maverick camped just outside the mainstream, defiantly putting his own mark on genre filmmaking. But Suzuki was much wilder, a trailblazer of avant-garde techniques couched in popular forms such as film-noir. And 1967’s Branded to Kill [Koroshi no rakuin] is his finest hour, the film that got him fired from Nikkatsu studios: a marriage of highbrow deconstruction and lowbrow narrative either refreshing or frustrating, depending on your threshold for unconventional awesomeness. Ostensibly the story of Tokyo’s #3 Killer (played by cheeky Jo Shishido), who screws up an assassination when a butterfly lands on his rifle scope and now awaits termination at the hands of Tokyo’s near-omnipotent Killer #1, Branded to Kill is in reality about how far a director can bend a story in order to deliver whacked out visuals and incredible moments. Moments like the rain and butterflies painted on-screen over our hero, or a rival hitman set ablaze in a bunker, or a cat and mouse showdown shot with so much headroom that characters are barely in frame, or the psycho-sexual fetish our hero has for the smell of boiling rice. This is art cinema at its finest, and “cool” to the Nth degree – unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and not only full of enough amazing frames to fill a museum but also enough bravado to make Michael Bay and today’s purveyors of macho cinema green with envy.

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