Out this week on Arrow Films is Japanese forerunning director Seijun Suzuki’s stand out masterpiece Branded to Kill- in glorious high definition. The film blends traditional Yakuza politics with highly stylised cinematography, to produce something of a resonant and heavily influential piece of retro cinema. Suzuki had blown audiences minds with his cleverly crafted, and beautifully sophisticated Tokyo Drifter (1966)– just one year before- and here with Branded to Kill he once again tips the bar to deliver his statement like a smack in the face. Suzuki was a director who hated to be confined by budget and convention and as such made a concerted effort to go against the grain in his contractual work for studio Nikkatsu. Even his earlier features- or at least the ones that can be found in English friendly format- contain flourishes, which make it obvious this was a director with something to say. Fighting the confines of well-trodden genre themes, Suzuki lashed out with flamboyance and avant garde, that was strictly ahead of its time. Unfortunately, Nikkatsu did not appreciate his methods, severing the director from his contract after this film, and causing controversy and impending legal battle for the Suzuki.
Problems aside, nowadays, Suzuki’s artful and inspirational direction can now be celebrated for the achievement it was. The filmmaker certainly made an impression on generations of directors to come. Branded to Kill represents the pinnacle of his no holds barred creativity. The lush use of statement colour in Tokyo Drifter is pushed aside here to present a bold declaration in black and white cinematography with Branded to Kill. As a result, this film carries a certain element of noir charm and even a gothic essence on some level; the director making spectacular use of the light and shadow which black and white film can offer. Overall the feature carries art, violence and beauty in equal- and unadulterated- measure, making it an experience to behold for those who love cinema that carries a retro quirk and transcends the boundaries of traditional narrative constraints into blissfully new and unchartered territories.
The underlying story is quite a simple one, focusing on Hanada- or Killer Number 3- and his quest to make it as a hitman in the unscrupulous world of the Yakuza. Although the central elements become somewhat convoluted or muddy at times, and the story blends in sexual politics and some S&M kink to further stir the pot, the tale boils down to some quite traditional themes of loyalty, pride and honour. The difference here is how Suzuki allows his characters to get from A to B, and his avant-garde approach to building up a narrative, employing snappy editing, and outstanding cinematography to dazzle the viewer into submission. Underneath all the glitz, our central character Hanada is a simple soul- he just wants to be good at his job, and that happens to be killing people. As our anti-hero navigates this often dangerous landscape, he finds himself in many a tight spot. Matters are only made worse by his money grabbing, and slightly horny wife Mami, who flaunts herself at him in exchange for an extravagant lifestyle, and when she unable to get what she wants, turns to the capable arms of boss Michihiko Yabuhara. But this is the least of Ganaba’s troubles, he bodges an important job attracting the unwanted attentions of Killer Number One and falls for a mysterious girl Misako- a girl with a death wish and a penchant for decorating her house with dead moths and butterflies. Twin this with his rampant fetish for indulging in pre-coital rice sniffing, and life perhaps isn’t as simple as Hanada would like.
Joe Shisido stars as Hanada- his bewildering cheek implants making him appear as if he has swallowed a couple of sponges, a move that apparently got the actor more lead roles. The actor’s weird physical quirks seem to fit perfectly in with the offbeat edge contained in Branded to Kill. As a lead Shisido puts in a noteworthy effort, coming off as both cool cookie, but also someone prone to human weakness; such as his love for Misako. Mariko Ogwada as wife Mami is a memorable force on screen, unabashed and happy to show some flesh for her art, the actress engages in some unrestrained violent sexual scenes with her co-star Shisido. As a character she is completely without likeability, thus demonstrating the skill of the actress. Annu Mari as the enigmatic Misako also commands a strong on screen presence, her looks not typical to the usual leading ladies featured in stereotypical Yakuza features. Mari’s character takes on the presence of a femme fatale from a classically styled noir- albeit with some more out there elements like her macabre fascination with death- as opposed to traditionally styled love interest. Mari never once falters in her portrayal and makes for a character with an extremely mesmerising aura. Koji Nanbara as Killer Number One adds some action into the mix, and also some bizarre black comedy scenes that arrive later on.
Arrow Films deliver a beautiful transfer onto blu-ray in 1080p high definition- this was provided from the Criterion Collection. Although the restoration notes specify this transfer- taken from a fine- grain master positive- was processed using DNR to remove a large number of scratches, dirt and jitters from the print, this is a fine job of restoration which has been treated with respect. All the grain is retained; the film holds a beautiful cinematic look, complete with the original look and feel. The detail is just fantastic, and this reviewer could not spot any evidence of an overhanded approach in cleaning up the source material to deliver this to blu. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 16:9 – 2.35:1, and it is locked on blu-ray region B- (PAL). Likewise, the audio track has been given a similar treatment, restored to its former glory with the aid of a respectful restoration, leaving no less than solid, distortion free, audio that shows no evidence of age related wear and tear. The release also comes with the benefit of newly translated English subtitles and is presented with its original Japanese audio. The combo pack also contains a standard definition DVD of the feature.
Although this is a fantastic transfer, the extras on offer here really are the icing on the cake. There are interviews with director Seijun Suzuki, an interview with lead actor Jo Shishido, and original trailers. The release comes with a gorgeous illustrated booklet, with writing from Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, original film stills, and some eye popping newly commission artwork by Ian MacEwan ( the artist also provided the exclusive reversible sleeve artwork for this release). Finally, the cherry on the top, featured here is an entire full-length feature- screenwriter Atsushi Yamatoya’s reworking of Branded to Kill- Trap of Lust (1973) (a Roman Porno reimagining, which has a great sleazy seventies vibe).
Out now, check the Arrow Films Official page here for details.