Branded to Kill - The Criterion Collection 4K Ultra HD Blu-rayOverview -
During his time at Nikkatsu, filmmaker Seijun Suzuki felt creatively stifled on more than one occasion, even deriding the Japanese production company’s clear favoritism for other filmmakers when it comes to bigger-budgeted productions. You can feel that frustration in Branded to Kill, a shining gem within the Japanese New Wave and every bit as formally exciting as it’s been praised for. Criterion upgrades their previous Blu-ray release to 4K Ultra HD (sans HDR) with an incredible new 4K restoration that easily trounces on the old master. All previous supplements have been carried over and nothing new has been added, but Suzuki fans will find much to love in this new 2160p presentation. This release comes Recommended!
When Japanese New Wave bad boy Seijun Suzuki delivered this brutal, hilarious, and visually inspired masterpiece to the executives at his studio, he was promptly fired. Branded to Kill tells the ecstatically bent story of a yakuza assassin with a fetish for sniffing steamed rice (the chipmunk-cheeked superstar Joe Shishido) who botches a job and ends up a target himself. This is Suzuki at his most extreme—the flabbergasting pinnacle of his sixties pop-art aesthetic.
4K UHD + BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Seijun Suzuki was pumping out up to four films per year for Nikkatsu, and Branded to Kill started as last-minute job for Suzuki. Originally brought on to rewrite the script at the behest of Nikkatsu’s leadership, Suzuki got together with the Hachiro Guryu (“Group of Eight”) to overhaul the project as a vehicle to make Joe Shishido a star. What Nikkatsu got, much to their dismay, was instead an absolutely wild and surreal ride on the coattails of Suzuki, a technical talent ready to let loose after years of working under restrictive productions. The result is nothing short of gobsmacking and historic, and the film has been assessed as such over the years by both critics and audiences alike.
Suzuki, who was no stranger to the crime and spy genre that informed Branded to Kill, took the opportunity to make a film that openly mocks and satirizes the genre norms that predated it. If James Bond’s insatiable libido is presented straight-faced, then this is the self-reflexive and hilariously overstated mirror image. All of the obsessions within the genre become opportunities for Suzuki to flip upside down and in turn, reinvent. That isn’t to say that his narrative style isn’t a bit harder to parse through, because it for sure is, yet any introspection turns into enlightenment thanks to a master filmmaker’s unfailing ability to be resourceful and creative in ways his peers were not.
Branded to Kill follows hitman Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) as he’s assigned to protect a key crime figure, becomes obsessed with a woman who herself is obsessed with death, faces the danger of being the No. 3 hitman for his employers and gets aroused off of the smell of boiling rice. Needless to say, such a wild-sounding plot is played as a surrealistic nightmare rather than a conventional narrative.
Shot in Nikkatsuscope (like Cinemascope, it’s a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), Branded to Kill showcases Suzuki’s jagged cutting and chiaroscuro lighting that envelops the audience in Goro’s bewildering nightmare. That isn’t to say there’s no humor, as Suzuki is a jokester of the highest and lowest order, eschewing tired reenactment in turn for spontaneity that can somehow toe the line between immature and intelligent. And unsurprisingly, Suzuki packs each frame with abstractions in time and space that breaks conventional film grammar. Exposed to 2:35.1 and the experimentation becomes monumental.
Needless to say, Branded to Kill, as described by fellow HDD writer M. Enois Duarte in his review of the 2011 Blu-ray: “…is an exhilarating motion picture experience that achieves that perfect balance of entertainment and art with remarkable results.” Seek it out, let it break your mind and then study the pieces it leaves with you.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
To be completely honest, I was more than a bit apprehensive about this release since it lacks HDR and in the past, Nikkatsu-produced restorations have been slapped with overbearing grain management. All that said, this 2160p, HEVC-encoded presentation is nothing short of spectacular. The new 4K restoration was provided by Nikkatsu and is sourced from the original 35mm camera negative. The previous 2011 Blu-ray release was from a fine-grain master positive that by comparison to this presentation, had a good bit of damage to the source and grain levels weren’t all that great.
That’s all to say that this new 4K transfer is like seeing the film for the first time. While film grain certainly looks lighter than normal since a lot of the film is in heavy darkness, it’s in the few exterior daytime sequences that you can make out just how well-refined the grain in the presentation is. For a film that uses so many different diffusion lenses, I never truly knew just how much detail was available at the source until this presentation. Contrast and black levels are stellar, and those flights of animated fancy look so much better now. Source seems to be in immaculate condition, as this is a pretty spotless presentation. I truly cannot recommend it enough.
The accompanying 1080p Blu-ray looks to be the exact same disc from 2011, though, with the aged master instead of the new one. I’m sure this may be a bit disappointing to those who aren’t set up for 4K yet.
The one track provided is an LPCM 1.0 Japanese track that sounds very much like the track on the 2011 Blu-ray release, which is to say it’s a nice presentation that pulls the most out of the thin source. This was never going to be a huge audio upgrade given the production style of the film, although dialogue and music are still balanced very nicely. The shootout sequences never sounding tinny, which is nice. The source also seems to be in immaculate condition.
Now, for a bit of disappointment. While the new 4K restoration is the star of the show here, Criterion has only carried over all the previous supplements via the 1080p Blu-ray that’s a copy of their 2011 release. No bonus features are available on the 4K disc. The supplements package was already thin in 2011, although what’s included is worthwhile given Suzuki’s very spirited personality and willingness to talk about his career. The interview with Joe Shishido is fun as well, as the charismatic star hadn’t lost his charm in 2011.
- Seijun Suzuki (SD 14:06) — An interview from 1997 during a retrospective at the Japan Foundation and Los Angeles FilmForum hosted by the Nuart Theatre where Suzuki discusses the production and shares his philosophies on filmmaking.
- Seijun Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu (HD 11:10) — Recorded for Criterion in 2011, the director and his assistant director talk about the history of the production, the cast, the film's reception and its lasting legacy.
- Joe Shishido (HD 10:57) — Recorded for Criterion in 2011, the star relates his memories of the production, working with the director and the reaction to the film.
- Trailer (HD 3:10)
Seijun Suzuki’s bewildering surrealist masterpiece, Branded to Kill, is now available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Criterion with a strikingly stellar 2160p presentation that handles grain and black levels much better than the previous 2011 Blu-ray release. Although the supplements package is very thin, the new presentation is more than worth the purchase. This release comes Recommended to Suzuki fans everywhere.
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