Criterion // 1967 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 29th, 2011
"Booze and women kill a killer."
It took a long time for movies to be taken seriously as an art form, and once they did it was usually very serious "art house" pictures and the occasional Hollywood fare. Even though lots of people watched (and still watch) B movies and genre flicks, they traditionally haven't been taken as seriously. A film like Branded to Kill shows why that's the wrong idea. With the skills honed by making dozens of low-budget pictures and without much studio oversight, Seijin Suzuki delivered a film that's equal parts crime film, existential meditation, and visual feast. It's one of the craziest films you'll probably ever see. Criterion released it in the early days of the DVD format with mixed results. Luckily for fans they've corrected all those problems with a stellar Branded to Kill (Blu-ray) release.
The third-ranked hitman in Japan (Joe Shishido, Youth of the Beast) goes on a number of missions, some more successful than others as he tries to climb the ladder towards the No. 1 spot.
If you hear one thing it's probably that Branded to Kill was so out there that it got Seijin Suzuki fired from the Nikkatsu Studios. That might not sound too impressive, though -- after all, that was way back in 1967. I mean you've probably seen Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, or even Inception -- how crazy could a forty-five-year-old Japanese crime film really be? I'm here to tell you, it can be pretty darn crazy.
The full story is that Suzuki had increasingly been given B-grade films to direct by the studio bosses and he was tired of dealing with second rate material. His response was to treat the terrible scripts he was given with touches of absurd humor. Ultimately, Branded to Kill was the final absurd straw that got him fired. Ironically, what probably seemed most radical back in 1967 -- the film's failure to provide key plot or character details, substituting gunplay instead -- seems most tame today. Those familiar with Jean-Pierre Melville's work at the time, and even Quentin Tarantino's work today won't have much trouble with the elliptical plot.
No, what stands out today as spectacular and strange is Seijin Suzuki's visual sense. Movies made in Japan tend to take advantage of the urban setting (primarily Tokyo), the small village (in samurai films especially), and the countryside. Branded to Kill takes place in some strange no-man's land that looks alternately like a disused set from a cross between Star Trek: The Original Series and The Twilight Zone. Those are just the wacky exteriors. Once the action shifts indoors, things get even weirder. Our hero ends up at the apartment of a mysterious woman whose apartment is filled with butterflies. However, it's not just the set design that puts the film over the top, but the editing and camera work as well. Suzuki chooses odd angles whenever possible, and the editing is frenetic, even chaotic. Even as one strange image rises up, it's immediately replaced by another, stranger image. If that weren't enough, there's a bunch of crazy nudity and some death-inspired sex scenes to keep audiences entertained.
Suzuki regular Joe Shishido is the center around which the film turns, and he's totally fearless in portraying a comic hitman with a fetish for the smell of steamed rice and an existential crisis. It doesn't hurt that he has bizarre cheek implants that make him look a bit chipmunkish. He's perfectly matched with the seductive and dangerous Anne Mari as Misako, who keeps a dead bird dangling from her rear-view mirror.
Best of all, Criterion has improved completely upon its earlier DVD release. That first edition was released before Criterion committed to anamorphic enhancement, so there is an obvious and immediate improvement in having the full resolution of the image across the screen. They might have been able to stop there, but Criterion appears to have either done more re-mastering work or found a better print because the one used here is surprisingly free of damage for a low budget film of the time. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer is also excellent. Detail is strong throughout, with minimal digital manipulation, and grain is rendered naturally. Contrast is excellent, while black levels are both deep and consistent. The lone audio option is a lossless PCM Mono track. Dialogue is clean and clear, and music is well-balanced. However, there isn't much the track can do to bring body and presence to a track of this vintage.
One of the two previous extras makes it over to this Blu-ray release. From the previous edition we get an interview with Suzuki from 1997 that runs 14 minutes. The director doesn't spend much time on Branded to Kill, but does offer lots of insights into his working methods for Nikkatsu. New to this edition is another interview with Suzuki (and assistant director Masami Kuzuu) that runs 12 minutes and focuses much more closely on the specifics of the film. There is also a contemporary interview with Joe Shishido, who dishes on Branded to Kill, Suzuki, and the Nikkatsu way of doing things. The disc rounds out with the film's trailer. Tony Rayns contributes a great essay to the booklet that goes over Suzuki's history with Nikkatsu while providing some insight into some of the film's deeper themes.
Branded to Kill will likely be a bit too weird for some viewers. Though it all hangs together in the end, the journey to get there can be a bit disorienting. If you're expecting a typical '60s crime flick, then you might agree with the decision to fire Suzuki over this film.
Gone from this version of the disc is the extra featuring composer John Zorn. He contributed a tour of his Suzuki memorabilia and an essay to the previous release, neither of which made it over to this one.
Branded to Kill probably won't belong in any top 10 classic Japanese film lists, but its bizarre blend of crime, inventive visuals, and existential angst make it an excellent example of what was possible in the heady days of the late 1960s. Fans who own the previous Criterion DVD will want to upgrade for the improved audiovisual presentation and extras. For those new to Suzuki's brand of crime, this disc is the perfect introduction.
Strange, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated