Criterion's release of Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower earlier this year caused at least two instances of confusion that I'm aware of, having to do with the belief that Pale Flower, from 1964, would be something like the crime films Seijun Suzuki would become famous for later that decade. I think the source of this confusion was the use, by Criterion, of the word "jazzy" to describe Shinoda's film. That word does not really evoke Pale Flower, apart from its score, but does put one in mind, or did me and at least one other person, of the fractured New Wave mania of films like Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. As it happens, my own affinities are closer to what Pale Flower actually turned out to be, and I think that is a pretty terrific movie, so there was no disappointment at play in my case. It did make me think a bit about Suzuki, though, who I don't have a great deal of experience with, as New Wave pop abstract genre hoo-ha is often not my thing. So much so that even Godard's Breathless, as well as even Godard's Band of Outsiders, leave me listless. Crime films once removed, I call them, and it's here that Godard and I begin to part ways. My interests would simply appear to lie elsewhere.
Or do they!? Criterion already released Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill many years ago, but tomorrow they're being re-released, remastered and with gorgeous new covers and so on. Having watched them both (rewatched, in the case of Branded to Kill) I find myself rather stunned. Less so by Tokyo Drifter, I must admit, eye-popping thought it unquestionably is, as you see:
The whole film felt to me like the adaptations of Yukio Mishima's fiction, in all their Brechtian phantasmagoria, within Paul Schrader's Mishima (genre differences aside, Tokyo Drifter must have been a huge influence on Schrader's film). The film's bright, assaultive colors contrast pretty sharply with the black and white of Branded to Kill, which came out three years later, and it's interesting, for me anyway, to consider Suzuki's relationship to the genre in these two films. In his essay for the Criterion re-release Howard Hampton ably notes how little care -- in the sense that it didn't matter to him, by which in turn I mean the absence of its mattering is what interested him, if you follow me -- Suzuki gives to Tokyo Drifter's coherence as a plot, crime or otherwise. But the story, which revolves around Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a former Yakuza who has left that world with his boss, Kurata (Ryuki Kita), to whom he is devoted, and Tetsu's legendary skills as a hitman, which trade he plies his trade in a way he believes is an honorable way to protect Kurata from encroaching Yakuza forces, brings to mind elements of the Coens' Miller's Crossing. Ultimately more bitter than that film -- or maybe clear-eyed, as another former Yakuza will eventually try to right Tetsu's naive ship -- Tokyo Drifter nevertheless almost hides that stuff, the criminal psychology, or pathology, or what have you, under some pretty crazy shit. The ending, a gunfight which takes place in a room of stark white, with maybe big yellow doughnut sculptures, is acrobatic -- that one gun-catching move of Tetsu's is pretty slick -- and bloody and more about all that whiteness and that one big spray of red than it is about much else.
"So what?" you might argue, and fair enough. I'm not here to knock Tokyo Drifter. It's just that boy, did I love Branded to Kill, a film I did not remember as being quite this excellent. And it's interesting how much more reserved it is, visually, than Tokyo Drifter, coming in 1967 when the push for most would have been to pull out even those last few remaining stops and let the style all spill out. Instead, nutty as Branded to Kill is in a lot of ways, here Suzuki seems to find more interest in the actual genre, the trappings of which, like the women and the guns (especially the women, though Hanada's (Joe Shisido) machine pistol gets a fair amount of screen time), become more central to Suzuki's visual design. And the violence, too, which is typically more brutal and fast. It's true, though, that both films share a specific theme about the empty and destructive ambition of the Yakuza. In Tokyo Drifter, that particular absurdity is expressed through the notion of honor and loyalty even being possible (it's not, Suzuki says), and in Branded to Kill the question is, if you're in the Yakuza, what does it mean to be the best at what you do?
Joe Shisido's cold-blooded and efficient hitman is ranked as the Number 3 killer. Number 2 is pretty well know, but who is Number 1? He's never been seen, he's a rumor, you can't get to him. It's worth noting her that Patrick MacGoohan's TV series The Prisoner first hit TV screens in 1967, the same year Branded to Kill was released, and while Shisido's hitman may be Number 3, not Number 6, his quest is still for Number 1, the discovery and defeat of Number 1, and Suzuki, very much not a realist (the course of Hanada's life literally depends on the weight of a butterfly) also has voices blaring at Shisido from intercoms, giving him instructions, threatening him, pointing out the foolhardiness of his quest. Put everybody in funny clothes and throw in a giant menacing bubble, and Branded to Kill could almost be set in The Village. Here, what Suzuki hid, due to lack of interest, under layers of color and even slapstick, he plays up and makes the focus: the death-wish inherent in the criminal life. The mysterious and deeply seductive Misako (Annu Mari) even says she wants to die, almost before she's said anything else, and Hanada is almost willing to help her out with that. The sociopathic elements of this relationship are not entirely unlike those at the center of the, I guess, romance in Pale Flower, actually, but the drive for success is much more feverish in Branded to Kill, and more theatrically abstract. And in Pale Flower, at least you could put your finger on the goal -- it was repulsive, but it was concrete, anyway. In Branded to Kill, you can define it, but you couldn't say what achieving it would mean. Tokyo Drifter's brand of absurdity is all in its visuals; in Branded to Kill, the absurdity is in the motivations.
Tetsu in Tokyo Drifter and Hanada in Branded to Kill really are trying to do the same stupid thing, which is to seek worth, even redemption (however they might define that) through the Yakuza. Both men are also both trailed by a theme song, each sounding like the Japanese equivalent of the "lonely wanderer" brand of American folk ballads, except in this case shot through with the fatalism of gangster life. By the end, though, Tetsu keeps drifting, and Hanada has pulled the trigger again and again until he's hitting empty chambers.