Whether you consider Film Noir a style, an approach or a genre in its own right is more a matter of opinion than cinematic history; but whatever it may be, many see Orson Welles’ 1958, A Touch of Evil, as the last of its kind, with everything following being either a homage, a period piece, or some cases (China Town), both.
But despite its vagueness and malleable guidelines, it has inspired a variety of cinematic groups, from sci-fi (Blade Runner) to comedy (The Naked Gun) and, you may not be surprised to hear, Japanese movies.
Although Branded to Kill was the movie that finally got Seijin Suzuki fired from the Nikkatsu Company in 1967, it is widely seen as his crowning glory. A film that pits style over substance, entertainment over logic and aesthetics over continuity, it is noir to the tenth degree, with odd angles disrupting the viewer’s perspective, and deep shadows slicing through the characters on screen.
The narrative follows Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), the third ranked hit-man in Japan. Whilst on a trip to Tokyo with his wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), they are picked up by a former assassin, turned taxi-driver, Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami)who recognizes the notorious Goro and begs him to help him get back in game.
Acquiescing, Goro accompanies Kasuga to see the crime boss, Michihiko Yabuharu (Isao Tamagawa), who sends the two on a mission whilst seducing Goro’s wife as soon as his back is turned. With unexpected corpses, ambushes, and gun battles, the difference between Goro and Kasuga is highlighted straight away, as Goro ploughs through bad-guys with ease and composure, whilst Kasuga whimpers and hides.
Their car breaking down at the wrong place, at the wrong time, allows for our femme fatale to enter, namely Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari), an eerily beautiful woman with a death wish and an obsession with butterflies. As she agrees to pick up the hitchhiking assassin, she becomes intertwined in his world, and soon becomes both his fixation and his undoing.
After a few more high-profile hits for Yabuharu, Goro is sucked into a suicidal contract that would either see him killed, or stripped of his high-ranking status. As his wife leaves, the mysterious No.1 (Koji Nanbara) moves in; the best hit-man in the country. No.1 leaves nothing to chance and slowly unravels Goro’s sanity. Seeing the cool demeanor of our protagonist slowly evaporate to leave panic and fear sucks the viewer further into the twisted world that Suzuki depicts on screen, leaving us confused, but enthralled.
It may well be a little too strange for some, and the black and white film stock does add an air of pretension, but the film is not one to be missed, especially for those with a taste for style, violence and lust.