Branded to Kill: No One is Safe

Hitmen can be idolized but Branded to Kill shows the darkness of their profession. With greed comes the destruction of so many lives. The creativity in how it is translated to motion picture comes from its attempt at neo-noir action realism. Joe Shishido stars as a merciless assassin who will do anything, and I mean anything, to be #1.

With great power comes great responsibility. Film has the power to go well beyond the viewer’s visual and social experience. The mode of a film is determined by the degree the audiences’ vision is blurred. Expressionism feasts off emotions through cinematography while realism resembles the world the viewer inhabits. Branded to Kill creates a realistic screen reality, despite its gory plot and story. It’s based on a paranoid hitman with a hazardous obsession for sniffing and smelling steamed rice. He is on a mission to be the very best that no one ever was. To catch them is his real test, to kill them is his cause. Joe Shishido leads a twisted final embrace of his life’s last moments as he gambles with the mortality of those around him. It is a deadly game of man hunt… but there is no winner.  

Not one person in this film ends better off than they started. Granted, if they didn’t die, they were lucky, but the pure carnage left behind pains the viewer too. The story reflects the lengths a man will go to reach his goal. It is an accurate representation of our ever-growing need to be the best. It is a vicious depiction of the everyday struggle. The struggle in this case, is life or death. Following a hitman’s metaphorical self-drowning, a linear narrative structure is used to keep the audience informed and engaged. 

Joe goes through some pretty traumatic experiences in this film. The darkness of his life is apparent in the first five minutes. Every person he sees wants to kill him- or at least he thinks, so he spends the entire movie on a warpath leading to everyone’s demise. He kills a lot of innocent men, but also kills a lot of people who want him dead. The line as to what’s worse is blurred. He has but a single moment of rest. If he isn’t having sex with his wife or smelling rice, he has his finger on the trigger. An example of his relentlessness comes in the form of his interaction with his partner. Joe, at gunpoint, slaps his partner in the face to tell him to go to the car. He is trading rounds amidst of all the chaos, but still makes time to slap his partner. It’s pure rage. The tone of this movie is maddening. From the landscapes engulfed in shadows to the handheld wide shots, there is a deadly atmosphere. Everyone is out to get him.

Men scream hysterically and tremble with the sight of people. They play with death like it’s a game and lose like it’s a game. Gambling with life is familiar to us, so the representation is spot on. Branded to Kill serves as an example of our worst moments. It is demented, but rational and painfully believable. In its execution lies the realism. Compared to action movies starring unkillable buff bald guys with killer one-liners, this movie is dark. The fires and explosions in action movies serve as spectacle, but the violence in Branded to Kill serves the story. We learn more about our protagonist after every kill. 

Joe Shishido lit a man on fire and watched him burn while he laid back and let his partner shoot him. The victim watched his house crumble to the ground while running for his life only to get shot by another man waiting for him, while the “protagonist,” (I use this term loosely) was unfazed by it. Joe shares no remorse, shame, or guilt. He is merciless, going about his day with the growing fear of his death. 

The cinematography uses a lot of practical effects to give Branded to Kill the appearance of ordinary fictional realism. Tracking, steady, and handheld shots are all incorporated to give a practical look. The cinematography treats very tender moments delicately. It lets the acting draw out the emotions in a scene. Close-ups are used to exaggerate the elements in the frame beyond recognition; whereas, other shots have the camera at the perfect distance to show only the essential parts of the story. Branded to Kill achieves an impression of ordinary realism, despite the excessive use of violence and sex, by avoiding cinematic designs that look excessively artificial or elaborately arranged. The sex scenes jump through positions in an epic conquest that lasts until sunset. Every shot is in a different part of the house. This effortlessly transitions into the next scene by transferring the momentum of still cuts into the different articles of the newspaper. 

The music is isolating, and the carnage follows with a harrowing conclusion. The silence after a killing is eerie and lonely. It’s only usurped by the shots of gunfire, which is more welcomed than the silence. Joe is either horny for his wife, or horny for war. His growing obsession to the hunt leads to his isolation. He doesn’t speak a word unless it’s about killing. His most contact in the ladder half of the film comes from a women thirty feet away from him threatening his life. Wide shots are used to accent the distance. The set-pieces reflect the characters mental state. His home is very elaborate and confusing, shaped like a battlefield, because his mind is a warzone.  

Branded to Kill culminates with Joe destroying everything he cares about. He accomplishes his life goal of becoming the #1 assassin, but at what cost? We see him go through absurdity after absurdity just to lose it all: his wife, his sanity, and his life. Every heinous act numbs the heart and mind of the audience and the characters. Everyone becomes a more desensitized human being, as the killings follow one another in rapid succession. 

Joe starts off as a weird guy who wants to nut in rice but evolves into a blood-thirsty tyrant. He shoots a man through the plumbing pipes in his own home. He lurks through the sewers to survey people through his sniper and play with their lives with his index finger. He shoots a man in his office and leaves him spinning in his chair because of the momentum of his lifeless body. His acts are so cruel to conceptualize. It is all dishonorable behavior that sheds a filthy light into the life of a hitman. 


Prince, S. (2012). Movies and Meaning: An introduction to film. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.