★★★★☆After more than ten years and forty films at the Nikkatsu company through the 1950s and 60s, cult Japanese director Seijun Suzuki was fired - allegedly for making "incomprehensible" cinema. Known for visual panache, staccato editing and a particular dreamlike quality that eschewed narrative logic, he was hardly working against type. After repeated instruction to make his work more commercially accessible, the straw that finally broke the back of that particular production camel was the dizzying jazz noir of Branded to Kill (1967), back in cinemas this week ahead of DVD/Blu-ray. What makes the story all the more curious is that the film is, in fact, a stunning riff on gangster fare inflected with surrealism.
Shisido's piercing killer's gaze is perpetually hidden behind shades, but his almost rodent-like cheeks undermine the cool. His sexual appetite is insatiable, but is also stirred most strongly by the aroma of steamed rice. Where events and are one minute snappy and smart, the next they're psychedelic - performances shift frantically from smooth to melodramatic in gloriously befuddling fashion. Similarly, Suzuki's framing is always exquisite, but its staccato editing continually disorientates - never quite allowing you to know where you are in any given room. Of course, this is all intentional, though, and the film uses its visual style and the excellent hard bop score to complement the spiral further into delirium. It is easy to see why Nikkatsu found Suzuki incomprehensible, but this is the exact quality that makes his film quite so brilliant. Branded to Kill is as much of a maniacal riot now as it must have been upon original release and for that precise reason it is well worth seeking out given the slightest opportunity.