Branded to Kill Criterion Collection 4K UHD Review: Yakuza Movie as Experimental Art

Goro Hanada’s life is spinning out of control. His wife spends all his money, so he’s always on the financial edge. He’s pretty sure she’s cheating on him with his boss. He can only get aroused from the smell of cooking rice. And he’s the number three hired killer in Japan. All he wants is to be number one.

Branded to Kill‘s summary sounds like a pulpy, comic book story. But under the guidance of director Seijun Suzuki, it’s made much stranger, and much sillier, than that. With the outline of a standard, if rather goofy gangster story, the film branches out in stylistic directions without regard for exposition, good sense, or taste.

While it starts from an understandable, if formulaic place (a couple of killers get together for a job, one of them full of nerves), the style of the film becomes stranger by the scene. The first scene is a standard car scene which looks like it belongs in a regular movie. But the next scene is in a nightclub, where characters change position without any establishing of space. First, they’re at a bar, and then in a booth, without the necessary shots that would connect the two places.

When the men begin their mission, an escort job for some heavy hitter in the organization, there’s obviously some elaborate James Bond style set-up where the client emerges from the ocean in a wet suit and needs to be covertly transported… but we don’t see any of it. We just see a guy wearing scuba gear changing and getting into the car.

What Branded to Kill routinely does is gives us the genre elements we expect, and then refuses to expend the cinematic energy to give them weight. The escort mission ends up in a firefight, but the staging of the combat is so absurd it makes it look like… well, what it really is: a bunch of adults playing cops and robbers.

Sexy women are also a mainstay of the genre, so in almost all her appearances, Goro’s wife is completely nude. Sometimes she’ll have an article of clothing she’s in the midst of doffing, but her only positive interactions with her husband are aggressive sex (fueled by the scent of cooked rice.)

There’s a femme fatale, Misako, who dreams of dying. Hanada meets her in the rain, and in most subsequent meetings he and she are separated by spraying water. She somehow gets wrapped up in a series of assassinations that Hanada has to perform. Clever, creative assassinations are part of the genre, too, so Suzuki gives us three increasingly absurd scenarios, including Hanada shooting an optometrist through a drain pipe the moment he happens to be looking into his sink.

There’s a plot hanging around the periphery of the movie, but it doesn’t really matter. Branded to Kill is largely episodic, with three or four major sections of the movie. It starts with the escort mission and the assassinations. Hanada botches the final one, and so he must go on the run from his organization. “On the run” mainly involves hanging out at Misako’s apartment. The first time he’s there the walls are covered with dried moths and dead birds. The next time it’s a relatively normal apartment, but she’s ready with a rifle to kill him.

The final and probably most cohesive segment is when Hanada is targeted by the number one killer in Japan. Number one doesn’t just kill you, though. He has to get in your head. He takes Hanada for a car ride, then leaves him alone. He spends days calling him on the phone, letting him know he can kill him at any time. And then he moves into the apartment with Hanada and makes him go around with him arm and arm, even to the bathroom.

Again, it’s a simultaneous example and parody of the genre. Assassins playing mind games with their targets is a staple. Becoming a live-in roommate who has ample time to kill but never does because that’s how number one works? It’s so absurd that it develops its own kind of internal logic.

Goro Hanada is played by Joe Shishido, who is perfectly suited to the role. Though he often plays gangsters with a hint of a sense of humor, here he falls in line with Suzuki’s sense of anti-sensibility without missing a beat. And he’s game for all of Suzuki’s weird set-ups and oddball compositions. The film is happy to throw away most conventions, though it’s not an out and out experimental avant garde piece. It has a story; it has consistent characters. It begins, it middles, it ends. It just doesn’t do the normal things while going through those motions.

When Suzuki turned in Branded to Kill, it signaled the beginning of the end of his career with Nikkatsu. He sued for wrongful termination, and though he won he ended up being blackballed from the industry for a decade. This 4K UHD release is based on an all-new digital restoration of the film. It looks practically pristine, with appropriate grain.

Branded to Kill is an absolute oddball of a movie. It careens from scene to scene without caring much about the plot because it knows the audience basically doesn’t care that much about the plot. That’s a coat hanger for the real stuff we watch gangster movies for. And then it makes those parts weird, too. It’s such a crazy, cool artifact that’s it’s a shame it essentially put Suzuki on ice for a decade. Though were I an executive in the waning days of the Japanese film industry and I had this movie delivered to me, I might have fired him, too.

Branded to Kill has been released by the Criterion Collection on 4K UHD and Blu-ray. The 4K disc only contains the film. The Blu-ray disc has the film and some video extras. Those include “Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu” (13 min), an interview with director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Massami Kuzuu; “Joe Shishido “, (11 min) an interview with Joe Shishido; “Seijun Suzuki” (15 min), an interview with director Seijun Suzuki; and a trailer. The booklet contains an essay on the film by Tony Rayns.

Kent Conrad

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