Branded to Kill (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 12.13.2011)
A film doesn’t have to make complete sense to be engrossing. Visual style and a striking central performance carry Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill despite the director’s pronounced indifference to clarity. Hanada (Joe Shishido) is Japan’s third-ranked hit man and not a bit happy about it. (Suzuki never explains who compiles such rankings.) In fact, he doesn't even believe that the number-one assassin exists. The film follows Hanada through several hits, leading to the inevitable showdown with his nemesis (Koji Nanbara). Along the way, he indulges in S&M with his wife (Mariko Ogawa) and meets a strange, mysterious young woman (Annu Mari).
Some may be interested to know that Branded to Kill offers a lot more nudity than was usual in 1967. Suzuki’s hyperkinetic style includes odd camera angles, the omission of transitions between scenes, a sex scene on a spiral staircase and assorted other craziness. Examples of the latter include include the unique way Hanada kills a dentist, his use of a Volkswagen -- a symbol of sanity in the turbulent sixties -- as a murder weapon and a character who covers his head with his jacket while dying.
The film is driven by the kind of dream logic that the Japanese do better than anyone else (the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the fiction of Haruki Murakami come to mind). Hanada’s need to smell boiling rice to become sexually stimulated seems to be a typically dreamlike Suzuki touch -- until the (excellent) extras reveal that the director had to include a rice cooker as product placement.
Branded to Kill is clearly indebted to James Bond, though it is far more existential and cartoonish. Suzuki runs out of steam toward the end -- the film dances dangerously close to silliness -- before arriving at what Suzuki proudly calls "an ambiguous ending." All this was a bit much for Nikkatsu, Suzuki’s studio, which refused to release the film until the director took his employer to court, an act of rebellion that resulted in a ten year hiatus from feature filmmaking.
This Criterion Blu-ray does wonders for the black-and-white cinematography of Kazue Nagatsuka -- especially in the otherworldly interiors -- and Naozumi Yamamoto’s jazzy score, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Matt Helm movie. Extras include informative background in an essay by Tony Rayns and an interview with Suzuki at a 1997 Los Angeles tribute. We also get a series of interviews recorded in July 2011 with the very frail 88-year-old director, a lively and mischievous Shishido and assistant director Masumi Kuzuu. The lovely interview with Shishido, who explains the odd plastic surgery he underwent to get better roles, includes a delightful demonstration of improvisation. -- Michael Adams