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BRANDED TO KILL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joe Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari, Kohi Nanbara
Director:  Seijun Suzuki
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Suzuki Interview, Poster Gallery
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  February 23, 1999

“This is how No. 1 works!”

Film **1/2

Branded to Kill is a Japanese B film and a cult favorite, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s a movie filled with radical ideas, plenty of over-the-top violence, a fare share of gratuitous nudity, and an inescapable sense of style over substance.  It has entertainment value, as director Seijun Suzuki has pointed out, but maybe not a whole lot more.

It was made by Suzuki for the Nikkatsu Corporation in 1967…a studio renowned for its ability to turn out low-grade pictures in 28 days or less.  They didn’t spend a lot of money, so they weren’t particularly keen about scripts or casts or crews.  You’d think such an outfit would have been more than satisfied with Branded to Kill…but they fired Suzuki upon its completion.

Some modern audiences like to say that there might not have ever been a David Lynch or a Jim Jarmusch without Seijun Suzuki…they may be right, especially if you consider the under-the-pipe assassination scene Jarmusch lifted from Branded to Kill for his own picture Ghost Dog…but the impression I was left with Suzuki was that he was imaginative and filled with ideas, but lacked basic filmmaking discipline.

The script is not his fault, nor is the strange and meandering plot.  Credit him with the action set pieces which give an otherwise unpalatable meal its flavor.  His main character Goro Hanada (Shishido), the “No. 3” killer for his organization, carries out his assignments with style and flair.  He times a high-rise killing precisely enough to make his escape on a rising hot air balloon outside.  He uses a gas can and a bullet to send a victim fleeing across the landscape in a giant fireball.  Goro’s penchant for sniffing boiled rice makes him an unforgettable character; the collagen implants in actor Shishido’s cheeks gives him a visual distinction.

The women in his life both cause him trouble…his wife Mami (Ogawa) turns on him in a surprising moment, and a mysterious beauty Misako (Mari) offers him the assignment that changes everything for him.  It’s an assignment that goes wrong, leaving Goro the hunted instead of the hunter.  Unable to trust anyone anymore, he ends up targeted by the system’s No. 1 killer (Nanbara), in an extended climax that is worthwhile and memorable, filled with humor and suspense.  Sort of like The Odd Couple, if either Felix or Oscar could be blown away at any moment.

Most of the film’s real problems comes from the editing, which Suzuki bragged only took him a day.  Cuts are often jarring and disorienting…it didn’t matter if his actors were in the same spot, or if the location was exactly the same, or a handful of other continuity problems.  These were annoying and highly distracting.

Suzuki definitely didn’t shy away from bloodshed or nudity…Branded to Kill is as lurid a pulp movie as you’re likely to see.  One can sense the beginnings of John Woo in the shootout scenes, even if Woo never had a sequence where a guy fires a gun through the windshield of his car and the glass doesn’t react. 

If nothing else, this is the kind of film that should be seen at least once just to discover the counter-culture of Japan.  Films like these were wildly popular there, and stars like Shishido were as big as Bogart or Grant…yet these movies were rarely seen outside their country.  Most Westerners, myself included, probably thought of Japanese cinema as all Kurosawa and Godzilla movies.

Branded to Kill proves that cult cinema is alive and well in the East, thank you very much.

Video **1/2

Most of the Nikkatsu films of the period were shot on cheap, high contrast film stock, so Criterion is not to blame that Branded to Kill doesn’t look as good as most of their offerings.  Indeed, this may be the best this picture is capable of looking.  The black and white photography is generally expressive and effective, but the picture shows more than its share of grain here and there, and some poor definition as well.  Blacks are deep, but not clean.  The print doesn’t show its age too much, but overall, this movie is only capable of looking like what it is:  a low budget B picture that was wrapped in less than a month.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is perfectly adequate…there’s not much to say in favor of or against it.  Noise levels are satisfactory, dynamic range is fairly minimal, dialogue and effects seem to come through with clarity and integrity.

Features **

Included on the disc is a gallery of Joe Shishido movie posters from the collection of eccentric musician John Zorn (who also penned the liner notes), plus a fifteen minute interview with Seijun Suzuki filmed in 1997.

Summary:

Branded to Kill has style, but no discipline, and flair, but no cohesion.  The action scenes are inventive, memorable, and highly influential, which helped Seijun Suzuki deliver a better than average B picture, but a B picture nonetheless.  It’s worth seeing as an introduction to a side of Japanese cinema that was wildly successful there, but little known in other parts of the world.