Written by: Michael Den Boer on April 12th, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1967
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Writers: Hachiro Guryu, Takeo Kimura, Chusei Sone, Atsushi Yamatoya
Cast: Jo Shishido, Koji Nambara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Isao Tamagawa
DVD Released: February 23rd, 1999
Approximate Running Time: 91 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1 Letterboxed Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono Japanese
DVD Release: Criterion Collection
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
Synopsis: Joe Shishido plays Hanada ‘No. 3′, the third-best hit man employed by a mob boss. Hanada agrees to help an old friend, Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami) by taking on a bodyguard job with him for Boss Yabuhara (Isao Tamagawa). They are ambushed while on their way to a house in the country, when alcoholic Kasuga loses his cool and is fatally wounded. After making his way through a gauntlet of killers, killing both Ko No. 4? and Sakura No. 2?’. Hanada then moves up in rank to No. 2?
After the job he meets Misako (Mari Annu) a man-hating woman, who he hitches a ride with. She hires him to kill a foreign man and when a butterfly lands on his rifle, he is distracted and misses his target. During this botch hit, he kills an innocent woman ruining his reputation and the Yakuza have marked him for death. Then his crazy wife (Mariko Ogawa) turns on him and with no where to hide he goes to Misako for help. Hanada feeling trapped at Misako’s place returns to his home to kill wife. In the meantime, the Yakuza have kidnapped Misako while Hanada was out and he finds himself the prey of phantom #1 killer.
In 1967 prolific director Seijun Suzuki would direct Branded to Kill a modern-day Samurai tale set in a world where everyone is crazy. Just like Jean-Pierre Meville’s masterful Le Samourai released the same year as Branded to Kill both films explore surreal landscapes within the crime thriller genre. Though Branded to Kill is simple story of a Yakuza hit man, but in the hands of an auteur like Seijun Suzuki who’s style is so fragmented and his strange compositions, mixed with his odd editing of scenes only confused the Nikkatsu studio bosses. After they saw Branded to Kill, they fired director Suzuki for making ‘incomprehensible’ films. In turn, Seijun Suzuki successfully sued Nikkatsu for financial compensation, though his actions resulted in him being blacklisted by the entire film industry.
For many viewers the first thing about Branded to Kill that immediately grabs you is its nontraditional narrative, that often verges into the surreal. With this being said, it is not as hard to digest the story at hand, especially once you embrace its colorful cast of characters. Also it is the journey of this film’s lead character Hanada, that this film resonates the most. Though he is a hit man, his ambitions to be the top of his given field have a universal feel to it that most viewers should identify with. After all, how many people are truly satisfied with they are in life. It is human nature to strive for something better then what we have.
And while the outer shell of this film’s plot has many elements that one would associate with the Yakuza film genre. These are nothing more than window dressing that is used to further Seijun Suzuki’s agenda to create something that audiences would find entertaining. In fact one could easily argue that Branded to Kill is a ‘tongue and cheek’ satire of the Yakuza film genre. There are also moments in which this film pokes fun at Spy films like the James Bond films, which were also at the height of their popularity at the time this film was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences.
From a visual stand point, Branded to Kill is Seijun Suzuki tour de force. Some of the choice moments include, the scene in which Hanada meets his mistress for the first time on a rainy night (this scene is inter-cut with a sexual encounter that Hanada has with his wife, which includes sex on a spiral staircase), the scene in which a now wounded Hanada, shows up at his mistress place that is covered with wall to wall butterflies and a shootout on a peer, in which Hanada immerges from the water to surprise his assassins.
Performance none of the cast disappoint, with the film being anchored by Jo Shishido (Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh) as a hit man, who gets aroused when he sniffs rice. Other notable performances include Mariko Ogawa in her one and only film role as Hanada’s wife and Annu Mari (Mini Skirt Lynchers) in the role of Hanada’s Mistress.
Ultimately Branded to Kill is an extraordinary film that was made by a filmmaker, who was light years ahead of his contemporaries. And will many have tried to imitate it, none have been able to match its boldness and inventiveness. If ever there was a desert island film, that film would be Branded to Kill.
An early effort from Criterion Branded to Kill looks decent for a 2.20:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer.The black-and-white print is always sharp and clear, though contrast levels aren’t done well in a few (very few) shots. The image doesn’t have many scratches, speckling, and other physical damage.
The audio in presented in it’s original Japanese Mono. The sound is full for a mono track and the dialog comes through clear. The subtitles are easy to read and follow.
There’s a motion gallery of posters for film star Joe Shishido’s movies and liner notes also by John Zorn. The real extra on this DVD is a fourteen-minute clip of director Seijun Suzuki talking about matters related to his movies and Japanese cinema in general. Overall Branded to Kill gets a serviceable audio / video presentation.