Branded to Kill
Having been impressed with the almost comic-book like Tokyo Drifter I was intrigued to view the film that led to director Seijun Suzuki’s dismissal at the Nikkatsu studios. The film is of course Branded to Kill, a black and white film noir that takes surrealism to a new level thanks to its perverse characters and Suzuki’s bold sense of style.
I tend not to do this but for a change the description on the DVD Cover is spot on so here it is for your perusal...Hanada is the underworlds 'Number 3' assassin. When his car breaks down he is picked up by the beautiful and mysterious Misako who before long has hired his services. The hit goes wrong - a mistake that cannot go unpunished in Hanada's world. He is soon drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the legendary and anonymous 'Number 1'.
The entire film focuses around the character of Hanada who is portrayed with an underlying sense of mystery by Jo Shishido. As the number 3 killer in Japan he goes about his business with a cold detached view on the world, while his rules include keeping away from women (despite the fact that he is married) and not drinking, instead he has his own vices, the main one being that of enjoying the smell of rice cooking! His character is quite perverse both in his general mannerisms to his vices to the treatment of his wife as an object of lust and seemingly nothing more. When he meets Misako this strange nature of his is brought out even more as he is determined to 'bed her' before he kills her. The other characters we meet are equally bizarre from his quite erratic wife to the depressing Misako and of course Hanada's world becomes even more surreal with the introduction of the mythical 'Number 1' who proceeds to lead Hanada on a downward spiral.
Suzuki’s sense of style is ever prevalent. Here he uses some quite erratic editing techniques that are in sync with Hanada's behaviour but quite often they left me a little confused as to the state of the narrative. What cannot be faulted is his sense of frame composition and the absolute control he has over the lighting, which, in a black and white film can create for some quite interesting imagery. Sonically too there is a strong score that suits the mood although I was left wanting to hear the title song repeatedly (much like Tokyo Drifter) but alas it was not to be! For the most part I found Branded to Kill to be a compelling story both through its often interesting characters and via the quite superb sense of style that Suzuki brings to the screen but I also found my mind drifting quite frequently due to the quite leisurely pace the film adopts which mixed with the laid back attitude of what is happening onscreen requires you to direct your attention to the film rather than it grabbing your attention unequivocally like a slightly more upbeat movie would.
This is a truly surreal movie that has more in common with David Lynch than it does any Japanese titles I have seen. Sadly unlike most, the Lynch reference is not something that excites me and although Branded to Kill is an accomplished work I found that it fell short of my expectations after being introduced to Suzuki via the quite excellent Tokyo Drifter, which is an altogether different but far more entertaining film.
This UK release is R0 encoded.
Using a quite pristine looking restored print Second Sight have provided us with the film in its original 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio featuring Anamorphic Enhancement. With barely a scratch or speck of dirt to be seen throughout the presentation the only signs of age come with the obvious in the Black and White picture, and the unfortunate with the near consistent low levels of grain. Do not fret though as it is hardly a distraction thanks to the generally high level of detail on display, well defined black levels and distinct lack of any form of compression problems. This is a fine example of how a black and white film can look on DVD.
The original Japanese Mono Audio is entirely focused via your centre speaker and although often a little coarse it does the job well, while background noise is only really apparent if you really crank it up (and there is little point to be honest).
The optional English subtitles are of a high standard with an easy to read white font and no spelling or grammatical errors that I noticed. What is a little irritating is the occasional words and short lines that go by un-translated, for the most part you can make an educated guess as to what is being said and I am quite sure we are not missing anything essential although some dialogue in the opening titles (in-between the song) does go by untranslated (instead we gut a full translation of the films credits) and you may feel like you are missing out. These are minor quibbles though (you could count the number of missed words on your fingers) and do not detract from your enjoyment of the film (and in this case somehow add to the mysteriousness of Suzuki’s vision!).
There are zero extra features although like Tokyo Drifter the menu and design works very well with the film while I have to give a mention to the sleeve design on both this and Tokyo Drifter that look great on the shelf together.
I am guessing the majority of readers will be familiar with Suzuki and his array of work, so for those of you who fall into this category I can confidently say this DVD represents his work quite superbly although the lack of extras is a little disappointing (but then even the Criterion alternative does not offer much in this department). For everyone else I would suggest you check out the superior Tokyo Drifter before moving onto this more subtle yet demanding piece of filmmaking.