August 27, New York: I’ve watched Branded to Kill twice before. This post will be two posts, one for each of those times. The first post we’ll call “Why Branded to Kill is Awesome.” Here’s the trailer to get you in the mood.
Japanese cinema apparently had a period in which cookie-cutter gangster films were all the rage. This movie was supposed to be one of those, but Seijun Suzuki got ahold of it and made it epic. We follow the Number 3 killer in Japan, a master assassin. He loves his work, hot sex, and boiled rice. The whole movie is scored with jazz and gunshots. The final third is spent in a surreal buddy thriller with No. 1. The movie is so weird and so awesome and when I first watched it, I knew I’d found something special. I took great pleasure in claiming my allegiance to this film and even buying the Criterion Collection “digital video disc”.
Then many years later I forced a viewing upon Jill and Robin. They hated it. This second post we’ll call “Why Branded to Kill is Terrible.” It’s too weird and too arty and the sex is gratuitous and violent and what does it ever matter that No. 3 likes the smell of boiled rice? The movie seems never-ending and is only exacerbated by the editing— which hops and jumps around and leaves the viewer often lost. And what’s with all that dissonant jazz? After my second viewing, I began to suspect that I just loved Branded to Kill because I loved having an allegiance to something weird and obscure. That I’d wanted to love an arty, weird film that was picked up by the Criterion Collection.
Which brings me to my third viewing, just this past weekend. The truth is, watched alone and without the expectations of others, this film is actually quite good. Weird and hard to get through at times, but awesome. That final third of the film, where No. 3 and No. 1 are locked in an epic standoff had my laughing out loud. And the final scene with its repetition of “This is the way No. 1 works.” is really powerfully tense.
Get into the smell of boiled rice and buy the Criterion Collection edition of this film. Then watch it alone and not with the expectations of your loved ones.