Branded to Kill
When Japanese New Wave bad boy Seijun Suzuki delivered this brutal, hilarious, and visually inspired masterpiece to the executives at his studio, he was promptly fired. Branded to Kill tells the ecstatically bent story of a yakuza assassin with a fetish for sniffing steamed rice (the chipmunk-cheeked superstar Joe Shishido) who botches a job and ends up a target himself. This is Suzuki at his most extreme—the flabbergasting pinnacle of his sixties pop-art aesthetic.
Criterion re-issues Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill on Blu-ray, giving the film a whole new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc.
First noticeable improvement over the DVD is that contrast is much better, with whites looking to be under better control. Blacks are fairly deep but details don’t get overly lost in them. Sharpness and detail is significantly improved, with clothing threads or pores on faces coming through much clearer, and edges are cleaner and better defined. Film grain is present and looks to be rendered naturally, and most importantly I didn’t detect any distracting instances of compression noise.
With more of a restoration or at least better print materials acting as the source of the transfer, this is the cleanest I’ve seen the film and it looks fairly film-like. A very welcome improvement.
The lossless PCM mono track also sounds to have been restored and comes off significantly cleaner, but there’s still a bit of edge to the dialogue, music sounds a bit distorted, and there isn’t much power there overall. Still it’s a lot easier on the ears in comparison to the original DVD.
Criterion ports most of everything from the DVD (meaning they moved one of the two features on it over) but have also added some new material starting with a new 12-minute interview with director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu. Similar to the new interview with them found on the new Tokyo Drifter edition they talk about the production of the film starting with the studio’s involvement in casting and the issue with casting the female leads since nudity was involved. There’s details about some of the more surreal touches like the butterflies (which Suzuki explains away as “it was in the script” so he filmed it) and he also explains how he was able to make it for the low budget thanks primarily to the product placement of the rice cooker that also appears to have, humourously enough, led Suzuki and team to giving Shishido’s character the rice fetish. There’s a little about Suzuki’s dismissal and the lawsuit that followed but not much. In all it’s incredibly short and a bit disappointing in this regard but worth watching none-the-less.
Following this is another new interview, this time an 11-minute one with actor Joe Shishido. With his cheek implants now removed Shishido talks about why he got them (which he admits was a mistake) and then talks in great detail about his work and the films he did with Suzuki, including Branded to Kill naturally. He also talks about working as an actor in the Japanese studio system, Nikkatsu in particular. We get the usual anecdotes and such, but this is a very off-kilter interview, and Shishido is one of the more engaging, forthcoming, and funny interviewees I’ve come across on a feature like this. There’s a couple of surprise moments I won’t spoil, offering a couple of good laughs and making this possibly the best feature on the disc.
Criterion then includes an Seijun Suzuki recorded at a retrospective of his work back in 1997, which also appeared on the original DVD. At 14-minutes it’s brief but very insightful as Suzuki talks a little about his early work at Nikkatsu, offers some thoughts on his films, gets into how he was able to quickly edit his films (in most cases he was done after only a day because he shot only what he needed,) states that he really only made films for entertainment purposes and not as art, and then offers his thoughts on “film grammar.” He only talks a little about Branded to Kill and Joe Shishido (he admits it’s hard for him to recall much of anything from the shoot) but he does get into his firing from the studio and the lawsuit that followed. Though the grammar and the spelling of the subtitle translation is questionable (and yes, me stating that is a case of “pot calling kettle black”) it’s a great interview, especially it’s amusing conclusion where the interviewer and Suzuki go to a local bar and have a couple of drinks, where Suzuki’s “acting” career briefly comes up. That last part especially makes it worthwhile.
The disc then closes with the theatrical trailer.
Missing from this edition is a photo gallery of poster art for Shishido’s films that was provided by composer John Zorn. This was a cool feature and I do actually miss it, but Criterion has been skimping on these lately and it seems to have become common for them not to carry these types of items over. Zorn’s essay is also missing from the booklet but Tony Rayns provides an excellent, and lengthy essay about Suzuki and his later films.
Overall it’s an improvement over the DVD’s features but they still feel slight (about 40-minutes in total) considering the price, but they’re enjoyable and informative enough.
Strong upgrade overall with a far better presentation and stronger supplements, though still slight for the price. But fans will be happiest with the significant improvement in the A/V and for that it comes recommended.