BRANDED TO KILL
Review by Michael Jacobson
Joe Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari, Kohi Nanbara
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Suzuki Interview, Poster Gallery
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: February 23, 1999
is how No. 1 works!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
to Kill proves
that cult cinema is alive and well in the East, thank you very much.
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.
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.
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.