There are movies that make you wonder just what in the world you just watched. I remember having that reaction when I watched Hausu, a positively gonzo haunted house film made in the 1970s Japan. I have just had that reaction again to another Japanese film, this one a Yakuza thriller from the late 1960s. The movie is called Branded to Kill and it is one of those movies that reads pretty straight forward on paper, but when it comes to the execution, look out! This is a bizarre movie that borders on the nonsensical. It is also a movie well worth the time if you want to take trip off the beaten path.
The movie was directed by Seijun Suzuki, a director I have come to really like based on the few films i have seen. Other films he has made include Pistol Opera, Tokyo Drifter, and Underworld Beauty. His style is somewhat minimalist and certainly surreal. I have seen him compared to Nouvelle Vague directors of the French New Wave, specifically Jean Luc Godard. I can definitely see the comparisons after watching a movie like Alphaville. With Branded to Kill, Suzuki has crafted a film whose unconventional style, odd editing, and strange characters all serve to distract from the mundane plot. It works.
The story follows Hanada (Joe Shishido, whose chipmunk-like cheeks were the result of plastic surgery), the third best assassin in Japan. He has his sites set on taking the number one spot away from the nameless mystery man who currently holds the distinction.
Hanada is approached by a friend to work a bodyguard job, which he accepts. The job goes well until they are ambushed by assassins 4 and 2. The ensuing battle finds Hanada moving up a slot to number two. He also meets a mysterious woman named Misako, who is morbidly fascinated with death and uses dead butterflies as house decoration. Anyway, she hires him to kill a foreigner, which he botches when a butterfly lands on his rifle. This finds Hanada on the outside looking in as his former employers want him dead. This ultimately leads to a confrontation with the number one assassin in Japan.
Again, the story is only part of the equation. The movie has an intriguing visual pop art aesthetic that helps create a rather surreal atmosphere. There are odd elements throughout, such as Hanada’s use of boiling rice as an aphrodisiac, the odd editing employed that jumps around during a few scenes, the way they shoot through car windows as if there is no glass there, and the highly stylized line delivery and camera angles. This is a movie that begs, and rewards, multiple viewings.
Even having watched it a few times I still don’t really get it. I am sure it is more to do with me than the film, but there is no denying the arty qualities it possesses. Seijun Suzuki has crafted his own version of reality here, it plays by its own rules and owes nothing to what we know as reality. There is violence always bubbling up around the edges and the psychological cat and mouse of the final act is flat out weird. The whole thing is awfully compelling.
It is interesting to note that Suzuki’s producers at Nikkatsu promptly fired him when he showed them this feature. They did not care for his delivering a nonsensical film. Suzuki sued the production company and won but ended up blacklisted and was unable to find work outside of television commercials for a decade. In the end I think he would have won anyway considering the bizarre and compelling film he created.
Audio/Video. The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio on this release. The film looks very good with the 1080p transfer. They have done a fine job of bringing a natural life to the surreal black and white photography. There is a nice depth and detail level throughout. I did not detect ny digital artifacts or blockiness, even during the darkest of sequences. Facial detail is nice and I never felt I lost anything in the shadows. This is a god example of how compelling black and white cinematography can be.
The audio is presented on a LPCM 1.0 track. It is a crisp and clear presentation that is mixed very well to give some punch to the shootouts, a nice level to dialogue, and appropriate use of other incidental sounds. The music is also given a nice place in the mix. The dialogue (subtitled in English) is always clear and easy to follow.
Extras. This Criterion release contains a few interviews. First is an interview from 2011 with Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu talking about the production and release of the film. Next is an interview with Joe Shishido, during which he discusses his plastic surgery and other aspects of his career. Finally there is an interview with Seijun Suzuki from 1997 discussing his career.
Bottomline. This is a really good movie, a really strange movie, one that begs to be watched multiple times. It is surreal excursion, an exercise in distracting you from the mundane plot with plenty of strange characters, quirks, and filmmaking techniques. It is a wonderful film waiting for the curious to discover.