t’s strange to think that, outside of Japan, the late B-movie star and “Diamond Guy” leading man Joe Shishido was best known for his role as Goro Hanada, Branded to Kill’s deranged, rice-sniffing assassin. Shishido, who passed away last week, was a prolific actor and consummate jobber, having worked his way into many roles, including a sensitive romantic lead, a stoic yakuza antihero, a tongue-in-cheek western villain (and sometimes Mexican bandit), and, in real life, a warm TV show impresario and cookbook author.
Shishido was Japan’s favorite dad, and had the “Best Father” award to prove it. He was also both the poster child for the Ministry of Education, which endorsed seven of his early movies, and one of Nikkatsu Studio’s most prominent action heroes, especially after he elected to get cheek implants to make him stand apart from contemporaries like Akira Kobayashi, Hideaki Nitani, and Tetsuya Watari. Shishido was Hitman Joe, Ace No Jo (aka: Joe the Ace), Captain Joe, and finally Dirty Joe, as he joked. Remember Dr. Blackjack? The heavy from the Rambling Guitarist series? The third fastest draw in the world (after Audie Murphy) with a 0.65-second draw?
You know: Joe Shishido!
Then again, Branded to Kill is, as avant jazz god John Zorn writes, “about as close to traditional yakuza pictures as Godard’s Alphaville is to science fiction.” Directed in 1967 by Seijun Suzuki — ten years after Shishido underwent his star-making plastic surgery — Branded to Kill is a surreal thriller about an increasingly paranoid hitman who gets an erection every time he smells steamed rice. The movie is so weird that it led to Suzuki being fired from Nikkatsu after he spent years cranking out evocatively titled B-movie gems like Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (1963), and Youth of the Beast (1963).
Shishido starred in Youth, too, one of several career highs for both star and director. He also shows up as a cop in Suzuki’s A Story of Sorrow (1977), an unusual psychodrama about a lady golfer’s troubled love life and the first feature that Suzuki directed after he was blacklisted for Branded to Kill. Shishido prided himself on being Suzuki’s most frequent on-screen collaborator; he also affectionately recalled, during a 2011 interview that’s featured on the Criterion Collection’s Branded to Kill Blu-ray, Suzuki’s old nickname of “Dirty Seijun” because of the many sleepless nights that left Suzuki “looking grubby and filthy”: “[Suzuki] almost never washed his pants and shirts. But his shooting script was nice and tidy.”
Shishido and Suzuki were both survivors of a ruthless studio system. Shishido recalls that, because Nikkatsu released a double feature every week, they needed at least 104 features per year ready for release. Suzuki obviously did more than help to meet that quota — “like he was putting food into cans on a conveyor belt,” as Shishido remembered — since his studio pictures grew increasingly challenging and baroque as he went (have you seen Tokyo Drifter lately?). Shishido, by contrast, was happy to slot himself into whatever roles he could. He had a very democratic spirit about what constituted an “artistic film” — “Whether it's an art film, an action film, or a period film, artistic films are artistic, and ordinary films are ordinary” — and was about as keen to play heavies as romantic leads or unlovable antiheroes. He was a character actor, an above-the-title star, and a proudly athletic performer. See him run, tumble, shoot, and dive through the dynamic finale of the atmospheric film noir A Colt is My Passport (1967). “[Shishido] was quite ambitious about doing action films,” Suzuki remembered. “He was really into making the action scenes as physical as possible and he was always thinking about how to make better action scenes."
Shishido was also in control of — or at least aware of — the way that his plastic surgery made him look. He frequently sticks out his chipmunk cheeks and uses them as a mandate to go full ham in Fast Draw Guy (1961), which climaxes with Shishido’s character clearing out a saloon boss who stands in for the occupying American forces post-WW2. Onscreen, Shishido was usually an obvious cad, but he was also often irresistible. Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp noted in his characteristically excellent Shishido tribute that “The ‘Joe the Ace’ moniker fit well with Shishido’s louche appeal, with his characters often seen lolling around shady bars and nightclubs in their downtime, cradling a whiskey in one hand and a deck of cards in the other.”
Shishido would have his cheek implants removed in 2001, but was very open and unsentimental about the limitations and unexpected changes that his career took because of the way he looked. He enjoyed roles that leaned into melodrama and comedy, despite his self-described “somber personality.” So, while he loved to play the man that every woman wanted, and every man wanted to be, he was also happy to play bad men in stand-out programmers like Velvet Hustler (1967) and Retaliation (1968).
Speaking to the Criterion Collection about Youth of the Beast in 2005, Shishido said: "In my case, I had plastic surgery because I wanted to be handsome. But the result was somewhat different what I had envisioned. Then I had injections in my cheeks to make them round and bulging. So I don't think I'm good-looking. Looking good is all in the mind. How you deal with whatever you have and work your way through it.”
Still: Branded to Kill stands out because it was a bold, psychedelic implosion of genre conventions. In that movie, Shishido helped Suzuki rebel against a prurient studio system, which was ironically a couple of years away from transitioning into the “Roman Porno”-era of studio-produced softcore. Shishido remembered that “those parts” sometimes slipped out during a sex scene shot on a spiral staircase: “I just wished I had a bigger pecker. … Not that they’d show it!” And, speaking of Goro’s rice fetish, Shishido gamely teased: “Inhaling the aroma of boiled rice and then having sex, isn’t that what the Japanese do all the time? You have rice for dinner, and then it gets dark.”
There’s really only one downside to discovering Joe Shishido’s tomcat charms through Branded to Kill, as many readers either have or will: you’ll probably more where it came from. Thankfully, in recent years, the good folks at Arrow Video, the Criterion Collection, and other boutique Blu-ray/DVD labels have licensed a number of Shishido vehicles, as well as some movies that only feature Shishido in them. Those in need of an instant fix can check out Shishido in Branded to Kill, A Colt is My Passport, and Cruel Gun Story on Criterion Channel, and The Rambling Guitarist, Retaliation, and Voice Without a Shadow on Amazon Prime Video. This newfound Shishido surplus is especially heartening if you, like, me, have been wondering what these movies look like after reading so many articles by Japanese movie experts like Tom Mes, Tony Rayns, Mark Schilling, and Jasper Sharp.
Joe the Ace may be gone, but there’s still a lot of him left to discover.
Simon Abrams is a Brooklyn-based film critic and co-author of Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone with Matt Zoller Seitz.