Our review of Branded to Kill (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published December 29th, 2011, is also available.
This is the way No. 1 works.
Seijun Suzuki's masterpiece, Branded to Kill, defines rule-breaking filmmaking in the late 1960s. If the Motley Fools had a Rule-Breaker portfolio of films, this would clearly head the list. Suzuki took a standard studio mobster script and turned it into a peculiar mix of odd camera angles and strangely lit scenery. The culmination of this effort is Branded to Kill, a testament to creative genius, even though Suzuki was fired upon delivery to the studio. Laughingly, the director was fired due to the "incomprehensible" nature of the film. Today, we call that ART.
Branded to Kill tells the story of the Yakuza's No. 3 killer (Joe Shishido). Just like any other Joe, No. 3 has a few marital problems and self-doubts about his abilities as a killer. Constantly wondering how he has risen to the heights he has, and whether his career will go higher, our killer eventually faces off in a psychological and physical test against the venerable No. 1, all because of a botched murder attempt.
But if the plot of Branded to Kill were mere meat and potatoes, the film would amount to little more than a bad version of an Irish Stew. Instead, with the additional seasoning of a true auteur at the helm, we discover a much more tasty dish—something along the lines of a newfangled fusion restaurant, blending the best of film noir with the whacked out sensibilities of a David Lynch type psycho-thriller. Mmm Mmmmm Good.
Criterion gives us a wonderful widescreen picture in glorious black and white, with delicious shadow detail and sharp and sparkling edges. You probably never knew black and white could EVER look this good. Suzuki's close-ups and wicked angle shots enhance the luster of this picture beyond imagination. If only some of our best director's could see this technique and mimic it…Oh well.
On reflection, the thing that is most heartening about Branded to Kill is the fact that it is essentially a B-Movie. Remember, this is part of the Nikkatsu canon. Nikkatsu was famous for releasing two films a week, and requiring that a film be shot, and edited in no more than 28 days. When taking these factors into consideration, Branded to Kill becomes not only a testament to Suzuki's skill as a director, but also to his abilities as a ruthlessly efficient maker of quality films.
The original mono Japanese soundtrack is strained a bit at times, but is more than serviceable. This film is wonderfully bereft of overkill filler noise or music. What is in place is there for a reason, and not simply to try to manipulate you as a viewer. Whether this is true because of the tight shooting schedule and budget, or due to any conscious choice made by Suzuki is irrelevant. The fact is that it is true, and the sparse background soundtrack makes the film that much better.
Included with the disc is an interview with the Director, conducted in 1997 and runs approximately 14 minutes. It is wonderful to hear him speak with fondness for his days behind the camera for Nikkatsu. Also included is a veritable treasure trove of public relations stills and posters from the personal collection of John Zorn, who is also quoted on the inside printed material included with the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only complaint with this disc is I would have liked to see more extras (so what else is new). Surely, a commentary track would have been a most welcome addition to this disc. It is very nice to have the extras that are included, but whenever a commentary track is missing, I always pine away for one—especially where Criterion is involved. Those of you who have read much of my work know I believe Criterion makes the best commentary tracks in the industry, which is why I view this disc as such a missed opportunity.
I can't recommend Branded to Kill enough. If you liked The Third Man, then definitely take a peek at this disc. A highly recommended purchase. Rent it first if you must, but definitely grab this one and add it to your collection.
Criterion, as usual, is acquitted. Suzuki is thanked by the court for the innovative use of studio money to make a personalized masterpiece. If only someone over here were doing the same thing (other than Terry Gilliam, of course). Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Seijun Suzuki
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