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Japan in the 1960s was a prolific maker of film entertainment. A number of studios produced hundreds of films a year, mostly for domestic consumption. In the midst of the competition for attention creative directors took traditional genres to extremes, developing visual motifs and storytelling styles far in advance of their American counterparts. Bored by dull assignments at the Nikkatsu film factory, director Seijun Suzuki began to stray off script, resulting in highly eccentric genre gems like the nearly abstract Tokyo Drifter. His 1967 crime saga Branded to Kill is so weird that Nikkatsu pulled it from distribution and dropped Suzuki from their roster of directors. He wouldn't make another studio picture for ten years.
The wildly eccentric Branded to Kill is at its basis a fairly conventional pulp crime tale. Pro assassin Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is a secretive man with strange habits. He beats his faithless girlfriend Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and arouses himself for lovemaking with the aroma of freshly cooked rice. Goro's unstable life is upended when he fumbles a hit, and is declassed from his #3 ranking among hit men. If he wants to survive he'll need all of his skills, as he's been assigned as a target for the underworld's top-ranked killer, No. 1 (Koji Nambara).
When American cinema clubs rediscovered classic Japanese crime pictures, they found a new world of genre cinema produced under an entirely different set of censorship rules. Depending on how the scenes were stylized, levels of violence and nudity forbidden by our Production Code were considered acceptable for Japanese audiences. Branded to Kill definitely pushes the edge of the censorship envelope. Goro and his fellow gunmen shoot up Japanese cityscapes with total abandon, and Goro's greedy girlfriend Mami frolics in the nude for almost an entire scene.
The story is simple enough, but the way Seijun Suzuki tells it broke many filmmaking conventions of the time. His bosses at Nikkatsu were baffled, and then furious that their employee had delivered something other than his assigned script. Suzuki's eccentric style is still jarring. Normal continuity in a scene will be interrupted by cutaways to what appears to be extraneous subject matter. Goro's relationship with his girl is sketched in disconnected shots that start in mid-action and end abruptly. Director Suzuki stacks hectic action scenes one after another without so much as an establishing shot. Goro kills in creative, cartoonish ways, shooting a man through the drainpipe of a sink and escaping from one murder scene by leaping onto an advertising balloon. Huge pop-art advertising images proliferate, as when Goro aims his rifle through a large billboard, imitating James Bond in From Russia with Love. When he can't shoot his enemies, he runs them over with his car.
Suzuki had already demonstrated a willingness to subordinate narrative to form in his thriller Tokyo Drifter, a riot of extreme compositions and hallucinatory colors. In Branded to Kill the stress is on exacting compositions, strange cutting and dislocated continuity. Sometimes the style adds to the intensity of scenes. Suzuki likes shots where a patch of light isolates a person's eyes in a darkened frame. The movie's play with symbols touches on the surreal. Diamonds are hidden in false eyes. Images of Buñuel-like moths and butterflies are present simply for their visual impact. At one point Goro is hired to kill a foreigner by a mystery woman Misako (Anne Mari). The walls of her apartment are covered with pinned insects. Misako is shown reclining on a sofa upholstered with real butterfly wings. Goro's fateful assassination assignment goes wrong when a large butterfly alights on his gun barrel just as he pulls the trigger. And when his thoughts become confused, cut-out cartoon images of moths suddenly appear over the image, as jarringly as the animated spirals that invade Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Director Suzuki isn't deterred by conventional logic A two shot in Misako's convertible sports car reveals a toy bird hanging from the mirror. But in the close-up insert, it is replaced by a real dead bird, with a needle piercing its neck.
These visual shenanigans keep us continually on edge and encourage an abstract appreciation of the sometimes-cartoonish action. The film has enough gunfire for three crime pictures and a grotesque death scene every few minutes. One killing by fire is particularly disturbing. The characters are curious variations on genre staples: the hit man with strange habits, the nymphomaniac ("We're beasts. Beasts need beasts."), the callous gangster boss, the rival professional. The only person afforded any real distinction is the 'hero', a frequently unpleasant fellow with a curiously distorted face. Actor Joe Shishido purposely had his cheeks fattened with plastic surgery, supposedly to make him a more suitable leading man. The result is a strange, puffed-out chipmunk appearance that is neither attractive nor serves any particular visual purpose. But the stunt did enhance Shishido's popularity.
The unflappable Goro spends the second half of the picture on the defensive, his personality fragmenting into madness. When the killing goes wrong he's suddenly typed as a total loser. His unfaithful girlfriend tries to kill him, and he becomes the sadistic plaything for killer Number One, who taunts him and plays strange mind games. The movie ends with a stylized duel in a boxing ring. Interrupted by discordant music, the scene has the kinetic feel of the muscle spasms of one of Goro's dying victims. Director Suzuki's semi-abstract riff on the gangster form is a film for cineastes and art students, a radical departure from the norm too forceful to be dismissed as a gimmick or a stunt.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Branded to Kill completely outclasses the company's lackluster DVD release from ten years ago. The new HD master is a beauty, with detail that allows us to appreciate bizarre items like the couch cushions seemingly made from the bodies of insects. Seijun Suzuki uses B&W on the 'scope screen like an artist playing composition games with an extra-wide canvas.
An older video interview with the director has been augmented with another newer piece that includes input from assistant director Masami Kuzuu. Suzuki comes off as a delightful old fellow who chose to deliberately overstep the limits imposed by his commercial sponsors. He begins by saying that he began work for Nikkatsu because he needed to make a living, an admission seldom heard from a 'cinema artist'. He talks about forming a cadre of rebel scriptwriters outside the Nikkatsu story department. Suzuki's explanation for his cutting style is just as simple - conventional spacial and temporal continuity simply don't interest him. Locked into 'B' movie plots without a chance to create original characters, his creative release was to play radical games with form.
We also learn how Suzuki landed on studio no-hire lists: he publicly opposed Nikkatsu's effort to suppress Branded to Kill and for quite a while was forced to make a living shooting TV commercials. Actor Joe Shishido also contributes an on-screen interview, enjoying himself mightily as he discusses filming the sex scenes and his decision to have his face surgically altered. In addition to an original trailer, the disc contains an informative insert booklet essay by Tony Rayns.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Branded to Kill Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.