Quentin Tarantino’s main gift to the world of cinema in the last year or two was the wretched Hostel, of which the best I can say is that it spared me any nagging ambivalence by marrying political ineptitude with perfect aesthetic nullity. I mention this at the head of a review of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill because, when he is not frittering away his credit by endorsing incompetent horror flicks, Tarantino is relentlessly re-building his stock by referencing cult classics whose relative unavailability safeguards him from embarrassing comparisons. Until now. This DVD release of Branded to Kill marks the latest instalment in a remarkable digital renaissance.
Hanada, number 3 killer, has to either kill or be killed; the only possible outcomes are die or become the new number 1. Nominally setting this in motion, but actually only giving the inevitable an eerie beauty, is Annu Mari’s Misako. Hanada botches the kill for which she hires him when a butterfly lands on his gunsight. Misako may be an instrument of Hanada’s fate: her apartment is full of nothing but pinned butterflies, and the ornament dangling from her rear-view mirror when he first meets her suddenly reveals itself as a canary pinned through the throat. Or she may be nothing of the sort. At any rate, Mari’s face, impassively luminous, shot through fountains, or head-on with an astonishing mixture of clarity and hangover bleariness, is the desireless object of desire around which everything revolves. Her torture by flame-thrower while tied to a sort of mobile crucifix, screened for Hanada’s benefit onto the back wall of her apartment, is one of the most astonishing scenes in a film of many breathtaking set-pieces.
Watching Suzuki’s delirious descent into the self-annihilating logic of the assassin, and the inevitability of desire, made me wonder: what is it that makes this film primary and Tarantino secondary? It is certainly not that Suzuki’s film has no sources and reference points of its own. The sharp suits, cool violence, claustrophobic spaces and chiaroscuro could easily be traced to American noir. And as in noir, the unadvisable yet irresistible, in the shape of Misako, liquor and tobacco, is very much to the fore. So why, beyond snobbery, do I not find Suzuki knowing and wannabe in the same way as a lot of Tarantino? One way into this would be Suzuki’s film’s relationship to commodities. Tarantino’s aesthetic is affluent to the point of being bloated: there is no sense of desperation or risk. Suzuki’s Japan, on the other hand, is aspirational with its Ray Bans and cigarettes, but it is also avid with austerity. A car that looks a bit like a Morris Minor trundles round a beach mowing down colleagues/adversaries in a battle with no apparent motivation beyond itself. The car, even then surely ridiculously, absurdly cute for the job, struggles up a dune towards a concrete blockhouse, presumably a second-world war coastal defence. One petrol-can later, the bunker is ablaze.
The scene encapsulates a clash of commodity and landscape that seems to me to inform the whole film. The blockhouse stands as a reminder of the recent past, of defeat, ruin and desertion. The car has been built from a British design under licence; the foundation of an automotive industry that will soon, but not yet, cap Japan’s post-war economic miracle. Beyond the ‘existential’ futility of a shoot-out between the numbered minions of a nameless organisation, there is another battle going on here, between fetishisation and pathos; between the desire for, and the humiliation by, imported glamour. The bottle of Napoleon brandy that glows centre-screen against a murky interior is there for one thing as the counterpart of Annu Mari’s femme fatale, but for another as a popular and longstanding Japanese tipple. But this is the flipside of Bill Murray’s abortive ads for Suntory Whisky in Lost in Translation. Suzuki neither mocks nor apologises for the bottle of Napoleon. His aesthetic imports the fatality of the commodity along with its glamour. Tarantino, on the other hand, imports nothing because his aesthetic already owns everything on the same flat plane of lazy availability.
There is a danger in this argument of casting commodification itself as an export from the west. The bottle of Napoleon as a normal feature of Japanese life is already a clue here. In another remarkable scene, Hanada takes out a hit with one shot in the blink of a giant mechanised cigarette lighter on an advertising hoarding. Does commercialization equate to Americanisation here? The subsequent American appropriation of Japan as the very source of grandiose advertising and media hyperreality, from Blade Runner to William Gibson, somewhat complicates this model. This re-release, and this review, are likewise testimony to a willing re-invasion from the east that is at once imperialistic and critical. The critical element depends on the fact that this film is, in all the senses I have been discussing, not simply ‘Japanese’; securely oriental and comfortably other. There are ‘Japanese’ elements in Suzuki’s film, but they are ones that do not allow me to simply orientalise. Hanada’s house takes the structure of the Japanese house to a level of abstraction approaching noirish delirium: the camera pans across a field of lengthy, too-close-together partitions that reduce the space to a series of brutally foreshortened corridors, broken only by a shower room and spiral staircase. The main indication that there is living space at all is provided by Hanada and his wife’s inventive and gymnastic lovemaking. The space that emerges is neither ‘authentically’ Japanese nor manneristically noir: it is a properly artful Japanese noir that reminds us, more forcefully than anything, that the American original was itself more than mere, easily appropriated mannerism.