An alluring blend of sex and violence with a stylish and surreal sensibility
The class of tradition and modernity is often a favored theme in cinema, especially in Japan, where the countries storied history contrasts with its accelerated advances over the past few decades. The Japanese New Wave that started in the 50s saw a collective of filmmakers embrace this clash, and shake off the conventional approaches to movies and dare to deal with more controversial subject matter. Seijun Suzuki was one of the standouts, and with Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin), he crafted a film so surreal and bold, that studio executives exiled him into the wilderness for nearly a decade.
The film centers around Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) the #3 ranked killer in the Japanese underworld. A a killer for hire, one sexually charged by the smell of cooking rice. A fumbled assignment sees his fate end up in the hands of Misako (Anne Mari), who leverages her position as an object of desire to task Hanada with a series of nigh impossible jobs, each deepening their bond, plunging this hitman into greater trouble, and eventually setting him on a collision course with famed killer the No 1 (Kôji Nanbara).
A straightforward plot, but this synopsis does not convey the creative absurdity that permeates Suzuki’s film. A pulpy, subversive thriller that flits with both action and eroticism. Creative kills, discomforting closeups, and a hallucinogenic immersion in the psyche of this killer give the film an edge that counters the pop aesthetic and expressionist style the filmmaker embraces, to greater conviction as the story unfolds. Among the abstract weirdness standout scenes that in this day and age might be confused for product placement, here speak to cultural shifts, and the the cosmopolitan sheen that Tokyo had started to showcase on the world stage in this era. A minimal score from Naozumi Yamamoto draws from the loose, improvisational style and sounds of jazz and complements the stripped down, but intricately wrought aesthetic. Even with its monochrome look, Branded to Kill is infused with dynamism and depth through the assured hand and wild imagination of its director.
Criterion presents an all new 4K transfer, one derived from an original 35mm negative by the Nikkatsu Corporation and the Japan Foundation. The sheer level of detail on show is a true standout. Also impressing is the density of the image, the range of contrast and grayscale, solidity of the blacks. Criterion’s 4K showcases an image that is truly detailed, crisp, and beautifully fluid. Any film shot in black and white can show all manner of flaws and failings in a film, especially at 4K, but this image is a true showcase for the film. The release includes both 4K and Blu-ray discs, the latter containing a collection of extra features.
- Interviews with director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu: An overall look at the production of the film, from conception, to on-set experiences, and the release of the film. This includes the backlash against the director by the studio. Packs plenty into a 13 minute runtime
- Interview with Suzuki from 1997: Recorded during a programmed retrospective of his work by the Japan Foundation. The prolific director spends around 15 min talking about the various aspects of his approach, and some key films in his output
- Interview with actor Joe Shishido: The actor gets a chance to show off his comedy chops as he also chats about his collaborations with Suzuki. The best piece of entertainment among these extras
- Original Theatrical Trailer:
- PLUS: An essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns: Within the liner booklet, which also contains information on the films new restoration
- New Cover by Eric Skillman
The Bottom Line
Seijun Suzuki rejects tradition and shakes up not just the formula of a thriller, but upends filmmaking, with a film that straddles that line between bonkers and brilliance. Branded to Kill is a a truly alluring work, blending sex and violence with a stylish and surreal sensibility. Criterion’s 4K is the perfect showcase for the visual feast on display.
Seijun Suziki’s Branded to Kill 4K-UHD is available via Criterion now