In a world where being ranked and classified literally relates to one's level of success, being the very best hired assassin puts tremendous pressure on a person and creates extraordinarily fierce competition for the coveted Number One spot. Botch a job and not only does a contract killer lose his or her rank, but the mistake could demand the ultimate price — a permanent retirement plan where staying at the top of your game is no longer a concern. Life then becomes a frenetic, disorganized existence of paranoia with a debilitating schizophrenic mental state of persecution complex, unsure of who to trust, what to believe or where to hide safely. This is beyond mere madness and entering a world of delusional excess.
Over the years, that has been my best description of Seijun Suzuki's striking and resonant yakuza film 'Branded to Kill' because that is what essentially happens to Goro Hanada. Played with stunning potency and animation by Joe Shishido, the ranked Number Three hitman is, at the start, a stoic, calculated presence with a speed and precision that leaves audiences wondering how much better the other two assassins could be. At one point, Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), a formerly ranked hitman, talks about Number One during an escorting mission as if he were some sort of phantom or urban legend, hinting of course at some eventual showdown. While on assignment, Hanada eliminates Number Two in the middle of an ambush without breaking much of a sweat, proving his skills once again.
Where things suddenly go haywire for Hanada and rapidly spiral from bad to worse is when he first meets the mysterious Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari), a disturbingly morbid woman with strange suicidal thoughts and penchant for collecting dead things. Her presence suddenly changes not only Hanada's urbane exterior, but severely alters the narrative of the movie itself. Something in her melancholic, damaged hysteria is creepily erotic, enough to awaken deeply hidden urges in Hanada's personality as well as spark an unsettlingly oneiric atmosphere. She almost singlehandedly transforms what producers of the film hoped to be a straightforward gangster flick into a deranged and bewilderedly eccentric piece of cinema that has perplexed audiences ever since.
From one scene to the next, as Hanada is tormented with feelings of defeat and incompetence after a failed assassination attempt, becoming the target of Number One's (Koji Nanbara) intricately designed game of death, Suzuki devolves — or perhaps, matures? — his film into a nightmarish conundrum of postmodern self-awareness. With inspired, ostensibly erratic editing by Mutsuo Tanji, sequences are not merely the experiments of non-linear narrative as they are a brilliant approach of expressing the mental state of the protagonist, his confusion and his rapid fall from grace. There are moments which verge on self-parody and the bizarre satire of film archetypes: Misako is a gross exaggeration of the femme fatale's dangerous prowess of our hero while Hanada's weird obsession for boiled rice is akin to James Bond's almost-fetishistic fixation for Vodka Martinis or any of Humphrey Bogart's noir character's obsession with sex, booze and death.
Much of this has been continuously discussed in the past by others trying to penetrate and exhume a meaning from Seijun Suzuki's deeply haunting but incessantly elusive film. Working from a script by Hachiro Gury, the director openly borrows from various influences, violently smashing them into a stylistic aesthetic that suggests a kind of pop-art nihilism — a cynical view of cinema's desire to entertain and be admired as the pinnacle of art. Could I be completely and gravely mistaken? Of course, but this thought also comes with veneration and consideration to the evocative, surrealist cinematography of Kazue Nagatsuka, adding that one extra visual jolt to this absurdist portrait of cinema's anti-hero. 'Branded to Kill' is an exhilarating motion picture experience that achieves that perfect balance of entertainment and art with remarkable results.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Branded to Kill' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #38) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 16-page booklet with a highly informative essay entitled "Reductio ad absurdum" by writer and filmmaker Tony Rayns. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According to the accompanying booklet, this excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made from a fine-grain master positive, which appears to be in exceptional shape and condition. The often stunning photography of Kazue Nagatsuka looks marvelous as the background in the many deep focus sequences penetrates deep into the screen, generating an evocative and haunting depth of field. Even scenes shot with diffusion lens reveal a great deal of clarity and sharp definition, exposing clean, distinct lines in the architecture, furniture and clothing. Pores, wrinkles and other trivial blemishes are plainly visible on the faces of the cast, especially during close-ups.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the video displays a thin veil of ultra-fine grain throughout, providing the presentation with a lovely film-like appeal. Contrast is sharp and crisp with brilliant whites, allowing for excellent visibility in the distance. Black levels are deep and true with some richly poignant shadows and outstanding gradational details. One or two scenes are a bit on the soft side and could be slightly stronger, but all in all, this is great high-def transfer.
Like the video, the Japanese uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack comes from a 24-bit remaster of the original print, and the results are, for the most part, quite impressive. Dialogue is precise with detailed inflections and nuances in the voices of actors. The music widens the soundfield somewhat, giving the lossless mix a good sense of presence and depth, while some mild bass provides weight and gravity to the lower octaves in the orchestration. The one thing holding the presentation back slightly is a mostly flat and uniform mid-range, as there appears little to no movement in the upper frequencies. The high-pitched sounds of gunshots are noticeably limited, creating a sharp-piercing noise and clipping. It could be a result of the original design, but as it stands, the sound is apparent enough to distract from the film's enjoyment.
The classic yakuza film 'Branded to Kill' is probably best remembered for its now-legendary backstory as the movie which banned director Seijun Suzuki from the industry for several years. Today, we admire it as a strikingly haunting and exhilarating motion picture experience that achieves the perfect balance of entertainment and art. The Blu-ray arrives with excellent video and a very good audio presentation. Supplements are a little light but amusing nonetheless, making the overall package recommended for cinephiles.