A scene from the 1967 film “Branded to Kill,” directed by Seijun Suzuki.Nikkatsu
‘Branded to Kill’ and ‘Grosse Point Blank’
This week, the Criterion Channel has put together a collection called “Japanese Noir,” which reveals the influence that film noir, a distinctly American genre, had over Japan’s own expression of postwar disillusionment and stylistic bravado. The collection includes Akira Kurosawa’s superb forays into police thrillers, like “High and Low” and “The Bad Sleep Well,” and contributions from masters like Shohei Imamura (“Pigs and Battleships”) and Masaki Kobayashi (“Black River”). But cult-movie aficionados will want to beeline to the films of Seijun Suzuki, whose gonzo pop cinema falls somewhere between early Jean-Luc Godard and a Cuisinart.
In fact, Suzuki was fired immediately after executives at Nikkatsu, a distributor of many Japanese noirs, got a look at “Branded to Kill” (1967). But the film has since been embraced as one of his finest works. The best approach to Suzuki’s improvisatory style is to appreciate the moment-to-moment inventiveness and hang on for dear life as the absurdity and perversion escalate. “Branded to Kill” follows the third-ranked yakuza assassin in the business, played by Joe Shishido, who becomes a target himself when a butterfly lands on his rifle at an inopportune moment and he winds up shooting a civilian. Suzuki treats him like a James Bond type, only this James Bond has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice.
Although it’s a gentler form of genre destruction, “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997) takes a big risk in cross-pollinating the hit-man movie with a rom-com. But the deadpan charm of George Armitage’s black comedy holds it together. John Cusack’s implacable cool helps sell the idea of a professional assassin who reunites with an old flame (Minnie Driver) when his latest job coincides with his 10th high school reunion. He’s hilariously frank about what he does for a living, but it soon becomes obvious that love may require a serious crisis of conscience. SCOTT TOBIAS
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