Seijun Suzuki may not be classified as Japanese New Wave as easily as we might point to Imamura or Oshima – preceding and influencing them, he might be to those auteurs what Jean-Pierre Melville was to their French counterparts, a mentor or godfather of sorts. Directing dozens of mostly B-grade crime and yakuza films for the Nikkatsu studio, something quite extraordinary happens in the sixties, as his work gets further and further into his own absurdist aesthetic style. It may not be his single most outlandish film – the pop art colour of Tokyo Drifter boggles the mind – but combined with its eroticism and perversion and one of the best scripts he worked with, it does generally get seen as his magnum opus. More notable still is the effect it had on his own career – frustrated with his increased idiosyncrasies, the Studio had given him previous warnings to tone things down, as for them his films made no sense and no money. Instead, we get Branded to Kill, and as such the director who made 40 films between 1956 and 1967 wasn’t able to make a single one for ten more years.
Chipmunk-cheeked icon Joe Shishido plays Hanada, the Number 3 ranked assassin in the Japanese underworld; though as we are told early on, no-one has ever seen the Number 1 or can be sure he even exists. The first half of the film is glorious genre filmmaking as we step into Hanada’s bizarre world, carrying out a series of elaborate hits (two of which are homaged directly in Jim Jarmush’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) while also establishing his strange home life. His ultra-modern apartment where he sniffs boiled rice (a powerful aphrodisiac for him) and has a lot of elaborate sex with his unhinged wife is almost as otherworldly as the next domicile he enters, one of the famous scenes from the film. Approached by the mysterious Misako, a femme fatale with an elaborate lair covered with ominous butterflies on every surface. Many of these scenes seem indistinguishable from an hallucinatory fever dream as Suzuki finds new camera angles and stylistic tics that make this absurd crime film look and feel like nothing we’ve seen before. After Hanada botches a hit he finds himself double-crossed and with his life in danger. The film is a wild ride, as well as a film of halves – the latter is more slow-burn, psychological thriller as we enter the pursued Hanada subjective terror and paranoia, compared to the more pulpy first. But it’s tied by Suzuki’s distinct aesthetics and inventive set-pieces. I adore this film, and revisiting it was a great pleasure – it’s a pulpy, absurd masterpiece of genre cinema.
Branded to Kill is a very dark film, that makes use of blacks and greys that didn’t always translate particularly well on previously available DVD versions, coming across as blotchy and with key details indeterminate. The transfer on the Blu-ray is very impressive, preserving the films’ original 2.35 aspect ratio and the film’s delicate palette of greys and blacks, and with a healthy amount of grain – the film’s many close-ups are particularly impressive and full of detail. It looks great, and sounds great as well; crisp dialogue and the film’s jazzy score sounds fine. There’s nothing to fault here.
The extras may be what sells the package, however. Aside from the interviews with director Suzuki and star Shishido (interesting if not essential, though Suzuki’s story of what he wanted the film censored on its release is fun – white arrows instead of black bars), one of the main attractions that pushed this release from ‘want’ to ‘need’ for me was the inclusion of Trapped in Lust, a reimagining of the film in the vein of Nikkatsu’s ‘roman porno’ genre – essentially exploitation films made on the cheap that combined violence with copious amounts of sex and nudity. Directed by Atsushi Yamatoya, one of Branded to Kill’s screenwriters – its ostensibly connected with Branded but aside from some key plot points, it’s a different beast together. It doesn’t have the inspired direction of Suzuki, but it’s a very effective genre outing. Branded isn’t exactly tame, and its even more sexually explicit (though it wouldn’t go as far as what we would now call softcore) and violent, and quite a bit of fun. There are also moments that are genuinely horrifying, like the main protagonists that are inexplicably doll-human hybrids. It’s also in 1080p – the source material clearly wasn’t in the same condition as the main feature, but it looks very good. Kudos to Arrow for including the film, out-reaching even the most hardened film geek’s expectations of what this package could have included. Included also is a booklet with two articles by Jasper Sharp, which provide some fascinating context for both films as well as the careers of Suzuki and his collaborators.
Lastly, it’s a very aesthetically pleasing package, with commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan for the booklet and front cover (though Arrow has its patented reversible front sleeve, if artwork closer to that of the original poster is more to your liking) – it’s really gorgeously put together, and MacEwan’s artwork in his cartoonist style really fits the pulpy, wacky tone of the film . There also is, of course, all content available on a separate DVD included in the case. This is a terrific film given very special treatment – whether you’re a fan of the film or merely intrigued, we can give this our highest recommendation.
This release is a Region B Blu-ray, which means it can be played in Australian Blu-ray players and consoles.