I’ve developed a fondness as of late for movies that tell fairly straightforward stories in the most whacked-out way possible, so I can’t even tell you how very up my alley Branded to Kill was. And is. And will forever be. But I’ll certainly do my best to tell you how very, very good it is. Ostensibly chronicling a yakuza assassin who, upon botching a job, is hunted down by the very organization who depended on him, it’d be far more accurate to say Branded to Kill is about butterflies, sex, CinemaScope, aphrodisiacs, steamed rice, film, alcohol, gunshots, men in suits, rain, cars, and everything that makes the crime genre so very very sweet. It’s Last Year at Marienbad, but about dames. Director Seijun Sazuki was promptly fired upon the film’s completion, and the zest he takes in raising a mighty middle finger to his B-movie producers is evident in every frame of the film. It’s gleefully destructive.
I fear I’ve already said too much, but what could I possibly say to ruin the film? I could describe every scene, insofar as there are “scenes,” and you’d never in a million years believe somebody made this in 1967. You’d watch the film and be amazed that I wasn’t lying to you the whole time. “Audacious” is too small a word, but it’s audacity extends far beyond the content. I wasn’t kidding around with that Last Year at Marienbad comparison (a film I couldn’t love more if I tried, by the way), because this is only slightly less elliptical and elusive, and slightly easier to grasp, but that’s really only because you know the basic outline of these kinds of stories. It is just as formally outrageous and expressive – I’ve never seen a man stumble towards his death the way Sazuki portrays it here, but no one else could ever do it as effectively. It’s so perfect I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it ten times this year alone.
And that really is just the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll leave you to discover the rest. Luckily, you get to do so via the new edition out from the Criterion Collection. I had a copy of the DVD to review, which was mighty impressive, and I can’t imagine how great this must look on Blu-ray. As is, the DVD presents a great black-and-white image with strong blacks, a decent amount of film grain, tremendous detail, all that good stuff. I noticed some blocking and haziness in darker scenes, but I don’t doubt that the Blu-ray improves on these areas tremendously. As always, go Blu or…well, maybe you just have a DVD player, in which case you’ll be well cared for here. The Japanese audio track is pretty great as well – the score by Naozumi Yamamoto is jazzy and memorable and just so great, and Criterion’s rendition brings it out in all its monoaural glory.
The special features are slight but wholly memorable. We get a video piece featuring interviews with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu, running twelve minutes, and an interview with star Joe Shishido. All were recorded in 2011, and there are few things as wonderful as modern interviews with classic film talent, because they could not care less about maintaining their “image.” In the process, they actually create an even cooler image. Suzuki is all good humor – he eventually sued the studio to get Branded to Kill released, and his cavalier attitude about the whole affair is priceless. Kuzuu offers more concrete production insight, and putting the two together in one interview pieces was a smart idea. There’s also an interview with Suzuki from 1997 that’s solid, doesn’t repeat much information from the 2011 piece, and the last minute or so is priceless.
Shishido, however, OWNS this release. Someone needs to cast this dude in a major movie right now, because at nearly 80, he’s cooler than nearly any working actor today. And again, could not give less a damn about what people think of him. Or maybe he does, and does it better than anyone. I don’t know, but this is up there with the best supplements Criterion has put out this year. Wonderful.
As always, we get a delightful little booklet, this time featuring an essential essay by Tony Rayns that fills in a lot of gaps left in the interviews. It’s available on Criterion’s website, but I thoroughly recommend seeing the film and supplements first.
And then there’s a theatrical trailer, and that’s it, buddy. It’s well worth a purchase though, and I’d imagine the Blu-ray would eclipse it in every regard. Highly recommended.