B&W, 1967, 91m.
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Starring Jô Shishido, Kôji Nanbara, Isao Tamagawa, Anne Mari
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Hired assassin Hanada Goro (puffy-cheeked Shishido) has a lot of problems. His career as Killer #3 is in jeopardy from stiff competition and uncooperative targets, he can't get over his fetish for the smell of boiling rice, and a strange girl obsessed with dead birds keeps showing up to perplex him for no discernable reason. When his own wife gets hired against him, he careens to a final showdown with the mysterious number one assassin in his organization.
A dizzy, thoroughly wacko hitman yarn, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin) got Suzuki fired from Toho after execs saw the finished print -- with good reason. Shot in stark, noirish black and white and crammed from start to finish with goofy visual ideas, the film bears little resemblance to anything else in cinema. Of course, viewer taste will completely dictate a response to this film, which has received both acclaim and disdain since its resurrection from Criterion. At the very least, hardcore foreign film buffs owe it to themselves to check this out and discover a completely unique style of filmmaking.
The hits themselves are riotous exercises in black comic timing, with one funny homage to From Russia with Love that goes memorably haywire into Spy vs. Spy territory. The film also proved to be the last straw for Nikkatsu, the studio where director Seijun Suzuki cranked out over forty films. The increasingly extreme nature of his "nonsensical" films was proving to be too much, and after this one (which also pushes the nudity quotient surprisnigly high for '67), they let him go. Unbelievably, he went to helm a loose sequel to this film, Pistol Opera, in 2001.
Like Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, this film was one of the key entries in Criterion's early push to introduce western audiences to the wilder extremes of classic Japanese genre cinema. Their laserdisc was something of a hot item despite severe cropping of the frame and a drab, overpumped appearance, and the same framing carried over to their first non-anamorphic DVD release in 1999 which also included a lengthy 1997 interview with Suzuki about the film's creation and controversial reception. The much-needed HD reissue of the film from Criterion in 2011 features a greatly improved transfer with much sharper detail, and the Blu-Ray edition in particular reveals countless little textures and compositional details obscured by the limitatons of SD. The framing is also corrected here and amusingly gives Shishido a case of the "Cinemascope mumps" in a few shots for good measure. Also included is a new video featurette with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu, who separately discuss the making of the film including the breakneck Nikkatsu production schedules which would probably have driven most people insane. Shishido also appears for a new 10-minute interview in which he hilariously recounts getting cosmetic work on his cheeks, discovering his skill at playing killers, and experiencing the difficulties of adhesive covering during sex scenes. Other extras include the theatrical trailer and a strikingly-designed booklet containing a new essay about the film, "Reductio Ad Absurdum" by critic Tony Rayns.