BRANDED TO KILL - Blu-ray review

This is easily worth the upgrade just for the slick anamorphic image.

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Criterion has released Seijun Suzuki’s “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” on Blu-ray this month, providing upgrades from the 1999 SD releases of both films.  They retain the original spine numbers 38 (“Branded”) and 39 (“Tokyo.”) 

Seijun Suzuki doesn’t do establishing shots, and when he does, they don’t establish shit.  Transitions?  Hey, buddy, every cut’s a transition of some kind and it’s not his fault if you can’t follow it.  Match cuts?  Kind of you to ask, but as one killer in “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) says to another, “Because you were kind, you’ll have to go to hell!”

I exaggerate a bit, but let’s just say that continuity isn’t Suzuki’s primary concern.  Also I wasn’t exaggerating. 

One of the greatest pleasures of watching Seijun Suzuki’s best films is the comforting knowledge that you cannot possibly know what image you’re going to see next.  A killer preparing for his big showdown may suddenly be bouncing a balloon around his apartment.  Two men may walk into a bathroom locked arm in arm.  A car chase begins and before you’ve figured out who’s driving or even if there’s actually another car involved in the chase, it’s already over and we’re back at the nightclub.  Are those two gunmen having a shoot-out or are they just two guys that happen to have guns?  Are they even in the same town? Geography, as the Dude would say, is just, like, your opinion, man, and when Seijun Suzuki wants your opinion, he’ll tell you what it is.  But you still won’t understand.

One of the more irritating aspects of Suzuki’s best films is also the not-so-comforting knowledge that you cannot possibly know what image you’re going to see next.  The barrage of stunning, off-kilter compositions can lead to sensory overload and cognitive exhaustion.  I sometimes wonder if he could have made the greatest sixty minute films of all time.  Not that he dawdles – “Tokyo Drifter” clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes, “Branded to Kill” (1967) at just 91 – but his energy drink cinema can lead to a nasty crash and burn, a deflationary death by a thousand little catharses, so be careful not to overdose.  Unless you want to.

“Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” represent Suzuki at his peak though they also represented Suzuki at the end.  Suzuki had made a name for himself cranking out B-movies (at a rapid pace of three or four per year) at Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, drawing particular attention after the success of films like “Youth of the Beast” (1963), “The Bastard” (1963), and “Gate of Flesh” (1964), but as his creative control grew (along with his penchant for formal experimentation), so did the studio’s frustration with an artist it couldn’t easily pigeonhole.  Just make us a nice, normal movie, Mr Suzuki!  Yeah, right.  “Branded to Kill” proved to a breaking point and the director was canned for insubordination and incoherence, leading to a protracted trial and a ten-year blacklisting that all but ended the formerly prolific career, though Suzuki’s 2001 opus “Pistol Opera” stands up to his finest work, in my opinion.

“Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” are often thought of as a unit, though they are radically different films, the first a neon-jazz color explosion and the second a magnificently opaque black-and-white fever dream that morphs on each viewing.  Both are bare bones distillations of yakuza plots – the main character in “Tokyo Drifter” becomes a target while staying loyal to his master; the protagonist in “Branded to Kill” is the number three assassin in Japan and wants to be the best (they keep meticulous rankings) but finds it difficult to climb the ladder when he screws up a job.  Also, he really, really likes to sniff boiling rice. 

But enough about the plot and characters and other irrelevant nonsense.  Suzuki’s films are about outrageous set designs, infinite fracturing of the visual field, frames within frames, and maddeningly repeated audio cues.  Suzuki’s “discovery” by non-Japanese audiences took far too long but once global cinephiles began mainlining him, they realized there was nowhere else to get a fix as potent as a Suzuki-fix.  His genre-shredders have been a major influence both for the good and bad over the last several decades, and it won’t surprise you to learn that Tarantino is one of his biggest boosters, though even a much cooler hand like Jim Jarmusch has taken to directly quoting the master.  With films like “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill,” it’s easy to understand why.

There’s no two ways about it.  The 1999 SD release of “Branded to Kill” by Criterion stunk on ice.  The 1080p transfer is a massive improvement in every way, not the least of which is that it’s a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer.  Pop that old non-anamorphic SD into your brand new Blu-ray player and you’ll see this tiny, pathetic framed image somewhere in the middle of your screen – you’ll have to look close.  As expected, the level of detail in this B&W transfer is superior by many factors.  Any further comparison is a waste of time.  There are still some signs of damage and perhaps a bit of boosting cleanup evident from time to time though it’s hard to tell sometimes as the dizzying montage sweeps by, but this is a fine, grainy transfer that should please most viewers.

The LPCM Mono audio mix is clean and if it occasionally sounds tinny or hollow, I suspect it’s supposed to though with Suzuki it’s always hard to tell.  The “haunted” sound of some of the effects is quite appealing.  If there’s any weak spot it’s the thin sound of the score but that’s OK.  Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

New to the 2011 BD update is an interview with Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu (Jul 2011, 12 min.) in which they discuss the production of “Branded to Kill.”  Also new is an interview with “Branded” star Joe Shishido (Jul 2011, 11 min.)  A March 1997 interview with Suzuki (14 min.) was recorded at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles and is a repeat from the original 1999 SD release by Criterion.  We also get a Trailer (3 min.)

Missing from this release is a Poster Gallery from the collection of composer John Zorn who also wrote the very brief liner notes to the 1999 release.  Those notes have been replaced by a chunkier 16-page insert booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker, critic and festival programmer Tony Rayns.

Film Value:
Criterion’s original 1999 SD release of “Branded to Kill” was one of its weaker efforts.  This 1080p release isn’t stacked with extras, but it’s a major improvement in every way over the original and even if you own the old version, this is easily worth the upgrade just for the slick anamorphic image.  Along with the Blu-ray of “Tokyo Drifter” this is a neat way to wrap up 2011 for the Criterion Collection.


Film Value