Branded to Kill (1967, dir. Seijun Suzuki) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The film’s director, Seijun Suzuki, a B-movie hack on contract to Nikkatsu Studios, had since the late 1950’s been slowly refashioning himself as an auteur, transforming boilerplate crime and exploitation scripts into stunning arthouse-ready experiments in light, rhythm, and form. From formalistic embellishments like the much-imitated filmed-through-a-glass-floor katana duel of Tattooed Life led to full on abstraction of Tokyo Drifter’s colorscapes, Suzuki pressed cinematic form, forget genre conventions, to their limits and then beyond. Whereas European New Wavers self-consciously appropriating genre cinema and popular culture for overtly high brow ends, Suzuki was an organic intellectual, a radical who developed his singular sensibility from within the workaday world of factory filmmaking and who claimed he was never trying to challenge the System, just pursue his own idiosyncratic idea of entertainment. Nikkatsu had already put Suzuki on notice when in 1967 he delivered the sweaty, fragmented howl of a film from which there would be no turning back: Branded to Kill.
Ostensibly a kind of criminal-corporate thriller about the “No.3 Killer” trying to work his way up the ladder of organized crime, Branded to Kill shatters the conventions of cinematic grammar, making radical leaps through time and space, throwing continuity and even intelligibility to the wind. Chipmunk-cheeked pulp icon Joe Shishido delivers a manic performance as the protagonist, who is sexually aroused by the smell of boiling rice (Suzuki said he wanted “a real Japanese hero”) and by his perenially nude nymphomaniac wife on the one hand, an exotic half-Indian femme fatale, and the mysterious effete Number One Killer whose job our hero is literally gunning for. Naozumi Yamamoto’s underappreciated hep cat vibes-and-harmonica score, a perfect time capsule of late 60’s trans-cultural Asia Pacific cool, is punctuated by the shrieks of animals and sudden, lashing downpours of rain as our hero is assaulted by animated phantasms in lonely strolls through the pitch black Tokyo night. Beyond its stylistic innovation, which is sometimes unfairly fetishized as a mere instance of Japanese weirdness, the film is a satire of the intensely hierarchical world of Japanese corporate capitalism (and, by proxy, its pseudo-monopolistic three-company studio system), a rendering of psychic dismemberment under the pressures of urban modernity, and a portrait of mutilated post-war masculinity–a constant theme of Japanese avant-garde art from the 1960’s on up to the contemporary deranged kawaii art of Takashi Murakami. Suzuki’s project wasn’t merely negative–its worth is not measured by its flouting of the conventions of Hollywood-style continuity editing–but by its singular, anarchic, freewheeling energy, that feeling of space and time that only the experience of viewing–and listening–can provide. And once you’ve seen it, there’s no going back. Neither was there any going back for Suzuki. Nikkatsu canned him after Branded to Kill, saying that his movies made “no money and no sense.” His firing became a cause celebre in the Japanese film world, with avant-garde filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima coming to his side, and although Suzuki eventually won compensation for the unlawful termination of his studio contract, he was blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for over ten years, returning in the late 1970’s to finally make the kind of uninhibited, bizarro art films he was clearly always destined to make. Thanks in part to John Zorn’s importation of the film to Kim’s Video in the early 1990’s and to its later release by the Criterion Collection, Suzuki’s influence has gone global, and his ouvre is now enjoying a national touring retrospective curated by Smithsonian Institution and a rising wave of attention from film scholars.
Dave Harrington has been the vortical swirl with Branded to Kill since I dragged him down with me in 2009 to provide the live score for my original stage adaptation of the film, mounted over the course of two years at Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater Incubator, Brooklyn’s Brick Theater, and La Mama. Dave and I had been roommates for a summer during our time at Brown University and had collaborated on performance projects for the university theater and the New Music ensemble. I knew no one but he had the versatility, sensibility, taste, energy, or cool to entrust with the entire musical half of my foolhardy passion project of translating Suzuki’s work to stage. Rechristened Butterfly Butterfly Kill Kill Kill! (Dave’s coinage) in an (entirely unnecessary) effort to fly our unauthorized adaptation under the radar of copyright holders, our play was half theater, half performance art, half jazz show. Our method was less translation than analogy: not to transpose Suzuki’s from screen to stage but to do to performance what Suzuki did to cinema, dissolving action into visual puzzles and flurries of movement and gesture. Channeling Suzuki’s proto-postmodern pastiche aesthetic, our play was a concoction equal parts kabuki, clown, Noh, Folies Bergère, butoh, neo-burlesque, bunraku, Richard Foreman, Shuji Terayama, Robert Wilson, Nagisa Oshima, Russ Meyer, Busby Berkeley, Merzbow, Lewis and Martin, John Belushi, Jean-Luc Godard, Sunn O))), Toru Takemitsu, Heraclitus, the Beatles, William Blake, Lucretius, Yé-yé, Naked City, Burt Bacharach, Madame Butterfly. The Village Voice, singling out Dave’s score in particular, raved: “unparsable,” “deeply offensive,” and “a wonderfully weird delight.” It opened with me doing some nonsensical stand-up routine in a John Belushi samurai accent while the cast applied makeup and warmed up on stage and Dave laid down a walking bass line. Expository dialogue was delivered via a rip-off of the dance sequence from Godard’s A Bande à part. The sex scene was transmuted into a series of increasingly pornographic tableaus climaxed in a tantric deep drone with our hero making love to a human-sized demon butterfly. A single gunshot was staged as a five-minute-long Robert-Wilson-style slo-mo stage cross set to an cacophonous live-remix of The Beatles’ “Flying.” Days before the premiere of our most lushly realized production, at La Mama in 2010, an emergency compelled our drummer to withdraw, and Dave played the entire score–featuring upright bass, drums, turntables, keyboard, sample pad, noise pedals–himself–and it was easily the best score yet. His new live film score for Branded to Kill is sure to continue the trend. To see Dave returning to this material after years of developing his powers is truly exciting.
Written by Patrick Harrison