I was born in 1967. And in the tradition of all petulant teenagers – I grew to have disdain for the period. It was the dumb Hippies and the music wasn’t as good as the Disco I liked and the movies were never about Jedis or killer Great White sharks. But then I grew up. It seems that in the past few years – I’ve rediscovered how great the end of the Sixties were. I’m watching great episodes of Doctor Who and the genius of Get Smart and I’m reading books and watching movies that show me how wrong I was about this time frame. And the folks at The Criterion Collection submit for evidence the brilliant 1967 film by Seijun Suzuki Branded To Kill in a new Blu-ray release this month.
It was Criterion that first brought this film to me back in 1998 with a Laserdisc release. The expansion to DVD a couple years later cemented the film’s reputation in the U.S. In fact, this is one of the few films I can recall that has been virtually untalked about for 30 years and then became a cult classic overnight and has now gone to that next level – legendary. It’s a difficult film to pin down and I think that’s why everyone can find something to like about it. The film is at its heart an odd homage to the James Bond franchise but seen through the eyes of Sam Spade and earlier American film noir classics. This isn’t Bond as Matt Helm. This is Bond if he fell into Kubrick’s The Killers. But Suzuki adds that additional influence that puts the film over the top – it’s his eye for the art movements of the day. The combination of the score and the production adds to absurdness of the film. There’s influence of the Avant-garde and Surrealist movements and not too far removed from the type of film style that Andy Warhol would approve of.
This is the segment of the review where I’d usually try to provide a brief summary of the plot while making some side commentary on different developments as the movie progressed. What you quickly realize is that the first 81 minutes of the 91-minute film don’t have any prolonged narrative exposition. The film drops you in the middle of a Yakuza (the extraordinary Joe Shishido who you should watch whenever you can) failing at a murder he’s supposed to commit. The message to the viewer is that these are stock characters and you should be able to quickly fill in their background and the general plot. It’s this failure that will make our hunter the hunted as he’ll be pursued by. There’s a clever order of killers. Our hero, Hanada is the number three killer. He is able to kill Sakura, the number two killer, but he is pursued to the end by the mysterious Number One.
Act One of the film is full of action and yet it all seems to take place out of time or place. The extreme jump cuts and snippets of dialogue have you feeling like you are always catching up with the plot. But while that would be an immediate turn-off for some films – it’s exhilarating in the hands of someone who is in control of all aspects of the film. Act Two is the seduction of the femme fatale. The seduction devolves into a parody of the Bond power of women as Hanada is obsessed with the smell of steamed rice (his martini if you will) and butterflies (that will later influence a killing). Like any good film noir – the women in his life will ultimately try to kill him too. The last Act is the closest the film comes to a narrative structure as Hanada and Number One move through the city in an extended chase and battle.
In recent years, I’ve seen direct influence of this film in the works of Korea’s Chan-Wook Park in the character of his killers, Jim Jarmusch’s lead in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai could have been dropped into America right out of this universe, and Quentin Tarantino has long understood how to use the idea of ranked killers to build up tension as a film progresses.
This film is often partnered with Suzuki’s earlier film Tokyo Drifter. I think that’s the perfect starting point – the earlier film is much more accessible and if you like that Yakuza story, you’ll already have a basic understanding of the world when you are dropped into this Absurdist film. There are way too many tiny things I love about this film and yet they don’t seem that interesting when taken out of context. True, the film does jump around like it’s just a trailer for a much longer film but when it’s finished you will realize that all the elements you need are there. It just takes the brain an hour and a half to piece them all together. And that’s the formula for a great film.
The Blu-ray looks great but the film always has going back to the LaserDisc release. For the first time, I noticed what a great jazz tinged score was done by Yamamoto in the new restoration. There’s also an interview with Suzuki, actor Shishido, a relatively boring booklet (by Criterion standards), and a new interview with the director. All these pieces are interesting but I still feel like the ultimate deconstruction of this film is still to be done. But what we have now is a legendary piece of cinema that you should not miss.