THE PRISONER meets the Yakuza movie in this crazy stream of consciousness black and white Japanese crime picture from 1967. Any attempt at describing the plot of this one is going to fail to convey the sheer random anything-goes feeling of the 'narrative' (if it can be called that) but I'm going to have a go anyway.
Jo Shishido stars as Goro Hanada, the No.3 killer in the weird world he inhabits. His aim is to become No.1. He knows who No.2 is, but the top assassin remains a mystery. We never actually find out who goes round creating these top ten lists of Japanese hit men but they all take it very seriously, and therefore so must we.
It's quite difficult to take Goro seriously though, with his cheek implants that make him look like a hamster in dark glasses and his bizarre fetish for getting turned on by sniffing boiling rice.
The first half an hour of BRANDED TO KILL makes some sense, with Goro starting off having to act as an escort for a client. Then a hit goes spectacularly wrong when what looks like a large cardboard butterfly distracts his aim, and he meets a mysterious woman with a moth fetish and a desire to be a corpse. After that it's weirdness all the way, with a disjointed timeline with flashbacks and flashforwards (I think), quite a bit of sex and nudity, lots of moths and butterflies, and above all some breathtaking and quite brilliant bits of direction that mean even if you have no idea what's happening you'll find it difficult to stop watching this one. When Goro finally comes face to face with No.1 they have a stand-off of literally wetting themselves proportions. The whole thing ends in a boxing ring but I'm by no means spoiling this film for you by telling you that.
Director Seijun Suzuki was famously sacked by Nikkatsu for making this film when what the company wanted was another straightforward crime drama. To be honest, I can see their point, as there's no way BRANDED TO KILL could be sold as anything other than completely bonkers arthouse. It's certainly a unique project, and one which Suzuki apparently made up as he went along. I suspect the entire thing probably does make sense, in a kind of MULHOLLAND DRIVE MEETS HAMSTER-SAN kind of way, and it probably needs several viewings before you can even begin to work out what's going on.
Full marks to Arrow then for the lovely, crisp widescreen transfer we get on this double disc Blu-ray and DVD set. There isn't a commentary (more's the pity - I'd love to listen to someone having a go at this one) but we do get interviews with director Suzuki and star Shishido (minus his cheek implants but with two hefty-looking scars by which they were presumably removed). A major bonus is TRAPPED IN LUST (1973), an extra full-length feature that's actually a softcore ('roman') porn version of the title feature. This one's in colour, makes a bit more sense, and has a lot more naked ladies in it. As extras go it's the perfect complement to the main attraction, and should rightfully set a trend for all movies released on Blu-ray to have their porn rip-off versions included as extras, although somehow I doubt it will. Otherwise you get trailers for both movies, a reversible sleeve boasting new artwork and a booklet by Jasper Sharp.BRANDED TO KILL is a very weird film, but it also feels like a very influential one, with scenes reminiscent of Kubrick, Polanski, Lynch and others that make me wonder if this is where they got them from. Worth watching if you fancy something different and brilliant that might just fry your brain.
Seijun Suzuki's BRANDED TO KILL is out now on a double disc DVD and Blu-ray set from Arrow Films