Article – The Sacking of Seijun Suzuki

Let’s start this story at the end. In April 1968 the 45 year old movie director Seijun Suzuki was fired by Kyusaku Hori, President of Japanese film studio Nikkatsu. This was a period when directors were contractually tied to studios and worked on a movie factory line. In a fiercely competitive marketplace Nikkatsu were struggling financially and drastically required genre action films; economic bankers which could lead them out of their precarious position. Oblivious to previous warnings over his outragous back catalogue and always one to be contrary, Suzuki delivered them Branded to Kill.

Suzuki’s crime’s which resulted in his P45? Too numerous to mention. ‘Nikkatsu Action’ had basically become a trademark during the late 50’s and early 60’s, a brand all of its own and specific to the studio. An alluring cocktail of Hollywood glamour, film noir and western, Nikkatsu Action was devoid of the reality of mid-century Japan. This made it the ideal tool of escapism for a disenfranchised youth. Often described as borderless due to the international stylings and settings, Nikkatsu Action was in fact clearly enclosed by well defined genre guidelines. When the studio asked Suzuki to direct a hit man action flick they probably expected something closer to the 1977 Sonny Chiba classic Golgo 13. What they were delivered was a baffling, incoherent mess of surreal imagery and distorted narrative; an absurd genre defying bag of nonsense. A masterpiece.

Branded to Kill was not born in a timeless vacuum. Suzuki’s influences had a very European flavour in contrast to his Nikkatsu colleagues who often poured Hollywood wholesale into their movies. His style was also developing from previous movies. Tokyo Drifter which was released the previous year contained all of the director’s bizarre visual flourishes, in its case accentuated by lurid Technicolor. The drifter of the title Tetsuya Watari’s powder blue suit has now become an iconic image of Japanese cult cinema. Branded to Kill however went further with its incomprehensible narrative which seemingly unwinds in tandem with the protagonists mind. The story covers the life of an assassin known only as Number 3 Killer. He fails an important job which puts Number 1 on his trail and brings the exotic hit woman Annu Mari into his circle. Sounds fairly standard but as the film progresses Joe Shishido as our rice fetishist hero becomes involved in a series of escalating dream-like events with a backdrop of butterflies and dead birds, eventually ending in a head to head battle for survival in a deserted boxing ring. The soundtrack and dialogue lend nothing to decipher the ambiguity of events. Suzuki seemingly has no pretentions and did not mean this to be an avant garde reflection on life. If anything it seems a blackly humorous sideswipe at the macho cool genre definitions of Nikkatsu Action. No one will ever be sure about his reasoning although many will theorise. What cannot be debated is the fact that Branded to Kill led to Suzuki’s dismissal.

Annu Mari and Joe Shishido face off

A veteran of over 40 films, Suzuki’s firing was embarrassing for all. The director was cut deeply by the dismissal and didn’t make another feature for a decade. The situation obviously grated on the studio boss who refused to release Suzuki’s films for a retrospective. His few but fervent fans howled in indignation. The fact that Branded to Kill was released at all is a huge relief but that it was shown uncut is revelatory about Nikkatsu’s financial position. Not that the movie did much for their bottom line. It played to empty cinemas, save for the hard core Suzuki fan or baffled outsider who had stumbled into a screening (and possibly stumbled out before the end).

Seijun Suzuki can be used as a cautionary tale for Directors who refuse to walk the line. His decade in the wilderness is an electric fence to those who wish to take the path of studio defiance. This story is also a reminder that directors create films, not studio bosses. Art and finance should not walk hand in hand. Even maverick German director Werner Herzog seemed to bow to his owners and paste an all American ending onto Rescue Dawn (I refuse to believe the last 5 minutes belonged to him). Questions must be asked over the naivety of boss’s beliefs that the Japanese maverick could produce a run of the mill movie, but also over the morality of creating an inpeneratrable piece of work for a studio in crisis. Suzuki’s couragous (or selfish) insubordination resulted in the production of a classic piece of cinema which will always be remembered for its bravery and visual flair along with the unique story behind its creation. One which has come to influence Lynch, Tarantino and many more. It may have played to solitary viewers in 1960’s theatres but now Branded to Kill is proudly revered by lovers of cinema worldwide.
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