Branded to Kill (Blu-ray, Criterion)

Director - Seijun Suzuki

Cast - Joe Shishido, Mariko Ogawa

Country of Origin - Japan

Discs - 1

MSRP - $39.95

Distributor - Criterion

Reviewer - Scott MacDonald

The Film (5/5)

   In 1960's Japan, the studio system was firmly in place. Directors were assigned film projects, and were expected to bring films in a very typical simplistic manner that was confined to a certain box. You would frequently see this applied to genre films such as gangster and samurai films, and then you would have the films of Seijun Suzuki.  At some point during the 60's Suzuki, who was hired to be a typical workman like for Nikkatsu realized that he didn't have to be entirely stereotypical in his approach and gradually began adding individual elements into each of his pictures. 

     This would culminate in his 40th film and the one on this Blu-ray Branded to Kill. Over the years he would add more and more avant-garde elements into what were supposed to be typical genre fare, getting him into increasing hotter water with the Nikkatsu studio heads. They began responding to him by issuing warnings, and cutting his budget for Tokyo Drifter (which apparently just made him more creative), and finally limiting him to using black and white film stock for Branded to Kill. Of course, Branded to Kill was the final straw, and upon turning the film in, he was promptly fired, and blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for 10 years.

     And to be perfectly honest from the perspective of a straight laced 1960's film executive Branded to Kill most have felt like a bomb going off in the screening room, because even 50 years later this film is WEIRD.  However, it is weird and entertaining in the best way possible.  Much like the French New Wave director's did earlier in the 1960's (and you can definitely see their influence on Branded to Kill), this is a film about deconstructing what came before. This film is essentially the Anti-Yakuza Yakuza film.

   The plot involves Haneda (Joe Shishido) a rice sniffing hit man, who happens to be the number 3 hit man in the Japanese underground.  He aspires to be the number 1 hit man, but has a problem. He has no idea who that is.  In his frustration with the situation he decides to simply off the other hit man nearest him on the list number 4 and 2.

   While trying to figure out how to expose Number 1, he accepts a job brought forth by the eccentric and beautiful Misako who be starts to fall in love with.  Unfortunately, Haneda, botches the job, and as per the Yakuza code now has the remainder of the Yakuza underground gunning for his head.  At the same time his wife realizes that he no longer loves her, now favoring Misako, and decides to kill him. As if his life couldn't get any worse, Number 1 finally exposes himself, but rather then offering Haneda a showdown decides to spend days keeping Haneda living in fear in his apartment, before handcuffing them together providing the ultimate humiliation. 

     This synopsis does not even begin to do the film justice.  Branded to Kill is a film so wildly eccentric that it is a film that needs to be experienced. It is a serious pop-art explosion taking elements of the Yakuza, and crime genres and influences as far reaching as the French New Wave and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville (notably Le Samourai) and inverting them into something new, and entirely unique. 

   I first saw Branded to Kill over Thanksgiving weekend 2008, and couldn't make heads or tails of what I was watching then. All I knew at the time was I was having fun with it.  When I review something for EuroCultAV.com, I typically watch it, let it sit in my head for a few days, and then write it up after I conclude my true opinion on the film.  With Branded to Kill I had to watch the film twice after it arrived, I felt it would be doing the film a disservice to try and write up my feelings on without doing as much.

     And as many of you may have found out over the last 50 years since it's release, Branded to Kill is truly an eccentric cinematic masterpiece. It's a film that never outstays its welcome, is full of great performances, and is always doing something to keep your eyes on the screen.  If you haven't seen it this is a great release to catch up with, if you have seen it, it's well worth the revisitation.

 

Audio/Video (4.5/5)

     The original disc of Branded to Kill was one of the earliest Criterion DVD releases, and actually predated their use of anamorphic widescreen.  It was in terrible need of an upgrade for a very long time, and thankfully that time is now, and the results are incredible.  Criterion has presented Branded to Kill with an absolutely glorious 2:35:1 1080p transfer, preserving the films original theatrical aspect ratio.

     The first time I saw Branded to Kill was a rental from Seattle's excellent Scarecrow Video, so I did not have a comparison point, but it is definitely better in every conceivable way. The detail is vastly improved, and the black levels, especially in the nighttime sequences are incredibly deep.  There is a healthy amount of grain over the whole film giving a nice filmlike presentation to the whole affair.

   The audio is presented with an LPCM 1.0 Japanese track with Optional English subtitles. Everything here is clean, crisp, and clear. The dialogue is completely audible through the film, and the music and effects are mixed clearly. Overall, a fantastic restoration in every single way.

 

Extras (3.5/5)

   Criterion has put together a nice slate of extras for this Blu-ray of Branded to Kill. The disc kicks off with a 13 minute interview featuring director Seijun Suzuki and A.D. Masami Kuzuu detailing the production history of the film, and culminating in the director's legendary firing from Nikkatsu.  We then have an excellent 11 minute interview with Branded to Kill lead actor Joe Shishido who discusses working with Suzuki on this film and Gates of Flesh.  It is a very fun, and off the cuff interview and is as entertaining as it is informative. We then have a 1997 archival interview with Seijun Suzuki taken from an appearance at the L.A. Film forum during a retrospective of his work.  The disc is rounded off by a theatrical trailer in HD, there is also a booklet with an essay on the film.

 

Overall

     Branded to Kill is an absolute masterpiece of eccentric cinema. It is a ripping fun yakuza film that knows no limitations as far as storytelling, and cinematic conventions are concerned. The restoration by Criterion is nothing short of amazing.  Highly Recommended.