Branded To Kill Blu-ray Review (Arrow Video’s Region B)

A surreal experience from Seijun Suzuki in the world of the Yakuza.

Arrow Video’s Branded To Kill is locked to Region B.

Branded To Kill is a delirious masterpiece of surrealistic Japanese filmmaking. Director Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 film was deemed nonsense by the studio behind it, Nikkatsu. Set in a world of organized crime and professional assassins, its perverse blend of action and sizzling style was decades ahead of its time. A Japanese hitman’s life takes a strange turn when he meets a mysterious woman and becomes the target of assassination himself.

Director Seijun Suzuki was fired from Japanese film studio Nikkatsu after Branded To Kill, leading to a period where he was basically forced out of filmmaking for several years. It is a stark visual film in black-and-white, with innovative shotmaking that would become ripped off by later directors. This is a trippy film with insane visuals, including a burning man running down a field. There is also an inordinate amount of skin and sex, which had to be censored with bars upon original release in Japan due to their censorship laws. The characters each have their own fetish, including a hit-man with a passion for cooked rice.

The main character is Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido), the “No. 3 Killer.” Let me digress for an important diversion covering Japanese entertainment to better explain this concept. It is a fairly common trope in their popular entertainment to have characters assigned rankings in a particular field. In this case it happens to be professional assassins of the Yakuza, a Japanese equivalent to the mafia. Hanada is the third-ranked hitman in Japan. There have been whispers of talk among the hitmen about the first-ranked killer, known only as a phantom. These are hardened criminals with many kills under their belt, they still talk in reverent tones about No. 1.

Hanada’s life falls apart when he fails on one of his assignments and becomes entangled with the mysterious Misako (Annu Mari). Misako had given him the target and when he fails to kill the person, a deeper criminal conspiracy is revealed. The price for failure as a hitman is death, which entangles Hanada with the suicidal Misako. A bullet-riddled journey eventually leads the No. 3 Killer to a life and death struggle with No. 1.

Branded To Kill has some epic action scenes in a stylish, off-beat approach that would not be seen in Hollywood for many years. This film had to be one of Tarantino’s direct inspirations for Reservoir Dogs. The similarities and general ethos are striking. Annu Mari is perfect as Misako, I am not sure the film works without her contribution. There is so much weird stuff surrounding Misako that it should be experienced unspoiled.

Movie ★★★★★

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British distributor Arrow includes a solid film-like transfer for Branded To Kill. In fact, it looks practically identical to Criterion’s release in terms of picture quality. If there are improvements, Arrow gives the transfer a slightly better AVC video encode with stellar parameters. Running 90:57 minutes, the main feature is presented at 1080p resolution in the film’s native aspect ratio 2.35:1. The following information was provided on the Criterion edition about this transfer:

This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image System’s DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

Nikkatsu’s films were mainly produced in Nikkatsu Scope, a film process similar to Cinemascope. Branded To Kill survives intact and uncensored on this BD’s transfer from relatively clean elements at 2K resolution. The monochrome film has stable black levels and decent shadow reproduction.

Fine detail is less than exemplary, likely a result of the digital massaging needed to restore its elements to pristine condition. Aside from the soft cinematography in select shots, Branded To Kill is a pleasing Hi-Def viewing experience showing dramatic improvements in definition and shadow delineation over prior DVDs.

Video ★★★★☆

The original monaural soundtrack is included in a fine-sounding 1.0 PCM audio selection. It contains a rich, booming sound for a 1967 monaural soundtrack, featuring a jazzy, exotic score with clear recording standards. The recording delivers a punchy, involving sound to the action scenes. I was mightily impressed by its sound quality with a deep array of convincing gunshots and other Foley work.

The Japanese-language film includes newly-translated English subtitles, presented in a white font constantly outside the scope framing. Some on-screen signs are translated but this is not the most thorough Japanese-to-English translation I’ve seen. There are no real problems with it and a native English speaker will fully understand the movie. It avoids translating honorifics when possible.

Audio ★★★★☆

Arrow provides their typically nice batch of supplements, including a completely separate film that acts as a loose remake. Packaged with an attractive cover, this combo set (which Arrow brands as “dual format”) includes both a BD and DVD. The included booklet is a great addition, featuring sharp liner notes and tasteful graphic design.

The two interviews are kind of duds, with both Suzuki and Shishido rambling about the forced censorship. The Criterion Region A BD had slightly different interviews which ran longer.

Trapped In Lust is a show-stopper as a bonus feature. The 1973 film is like a remake of Branded To Kill, but in color and with even weirder sex scenes. It is presented in rather decent A/V quality from a solid film transfer.

Special Features:

Standard Definition DVD presentation
Newly translated English subtitles for both films
Interview with director Seijun Suzuki (07:08 in SD)
Interview with star Jo Shishido by critic and author Koshi Ueno (06:40 in SD)
Trapped in Lust [Aiyoku no wana] (73:33 in HD) – A delirious roman porno re-imagining of Branded to Kill from Atsushi Yamatoya, one of Branded to Kill’s screenwriters and Suzuki’s regular collaborators
Original Trailers for Branded to Kill and Trapped in Lust
Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
Booklet by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp, illustrated with original stills and new artwork by Ian MacEwan

Extras ★★★★☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Note: Due to technical problems, no screen shots are available.