Donning a kimono and brandishing an oil-paper umbrella and a concealed tanto, a man dazzlingly assassinates a crime boss, his appearance hidden until execution. Double crossed by his gang, our crime saturated hit-man’s life is threatened, and subsequently rescued by his younger brother – an aspiring artist who becomes the killer he isn’t. Fearing for their lives, our brothers set out for a safe haven away from their inevitable pursuers, winding up in the mining town of Manchuria, a place that only alludes to a perfect utopia for our fugitives. Hidden under a guise of falsity, their existence beholden to the embrace of a new type of gang, we begin to see the brother’s grapple with shedding their former selves; one that covers his tracks, while the younger falters back from his actions. Despite settling down away from the life of a yakuza, there remains a continual sense of urgency and movement, one that kicks up sand and cloaks our world in a false identity and a distorted hope.
Seijun Suzuki (BRANDED TO KILL) quickly establishes his world as a duplicitous one, where yakuza can be miners, artist’s killers, and revenge a double edged sword. Set in the early days of the Showa era (1926), a period marked by peace and harmony, we are immediately given a glimpse at the mask it wears, as the violent world of the Yakuza shatters any notion of tranquility. This isn’t an idea however, but a necessity, as our assassin Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) holsters his blooded weapon in the pursuit of a life reposed; in order to live, he must don the mask of a killer. Suzuki paints a world that closely resembles that of one of Kurosawa’s samurai pieces, where its citizens live and die by the sword; another necessity for thriving and pressing forward. However, this is a world that glints in the reflection of a gun, where the rise of gangster cool begins to trump the archaic existence of the samurai. It’s another mask that our film wears, using the kimono and katana as a homage to the Edo period, and the rise of the Yakuza as its destruction.
Under the careful watch of Tetsu is his younger brother, Kenji (Kotobuki Hananomoto), who despite existing on the edge of violence, desires to go to art school. After witnessing his brother’s assassination attempt, Kenji reacts with the haste and brutality of a poised killer, grabbing the assassin’s gun and enacting revenge. In spite of our brothers’ seemingly different paths in life, we are introduced to each through an act of violence; one by command and the other by instinct. What we bear witness to is the reflection of the past, and the new progression of peace; a momentary notion that masks and subdues the volatile nature of man. Kenji represents the harmonious time of the Showa era, while Tetsu reflects the savagery of the old, seen through the use of his blade. Dismissed are the clean-cut suits and polished shoes of the Yakuza we know, replaced with a pair of getas that inevitably take our protagonist to Manchuria, a mining town that conceals the fate of both Tetsu and Kenji.
Similar to the vicious Edo period, which swiftly saw the decline of the samurai, the Showa era, flaunting a time of peace, works only to cover up what aggressive behavior has past. Kenji uniquely symbolizes the idea of the current era, yet embodies the naturalistic tendencies of what has made Japan’s history succeed; a barbaric need to live, despite its utterly contradictory notions within our young protagonist. Seijun Suzuki captures all of this with deft motion, placing the constant movement of civility and violence at our feet. As our brothers on the run flee from violence, it’s violence itself that flows from the opposite direction, tearing down the mask that each one wears.
When it all collides in the middle, Tetsu’s disguise is stripped away as he shatters his peaceful existence out of revenge for the murder of Kenji. With rain pouring down as if to wash away the era in which we exist in, Tetsu battles his way through the confines of his newly developed existence. When faced with his last attacker, Suzuki places the camera under our warriors, their stature towering over us like giants. It’s this grand idea of Tetsu that subverts the notion of peace and harmony, revealing our retired yakuza as an idea that you cannot escape, no matter how many masks you hide behind. When Tetsu’s tattooed body is finally revealed, a white fox emblazoned on his back, a sense of permanency is laid before us, telling us that no matter how long you keep your true self hidden, it will always follow you into the dark.