‘Branded to Kill’ – Assassins gone wild on Criterion Channel

Seijun Suzuki’s absolutely mad yakuza movie Branded to Kill (Japan, 1967) blows the genre to smithereens.

Jo Shishido stars as Goro Hanada, the Number Three hitman in a crime organization that makes him the next target after the butterfly effect upsets an important mission. Goro is no pushover and easily dispatches the first comers, leaving them splayed in death contortions that could qualify for an Olympic event. Then the rat-a-tat violence gives way to a surreal, sadistic game of cat and mouse.

The legendary Number One (Koji Nanbara) mercilessly taunts his target before moving in with him in a macho, testosterone-laden Odd Couple truce that ends up with them handcuffed together. Kinky? Not compared to earlier scenes. The smell of boiling rice sets Goro’s libido so aflame that Suzuki censors the gymnastic sex with his mistress with animated black bars that come to life in an animated cha-cha.

Suzuki so pushed his yakuza parodies and cinematic surrealism that Nikkatsu finally called in their own metaphoric hit and fired the director with such force that he was effectively blackballed from the industry for a decade. Suzuki’s pop-art sensibilities were just a bit ahead of their time and it took more than twenty years for audiences to catch up to the director’s audacious genre-bending and narrative-busting ways.

The genre transformed in the seventies, turning away from the splashy capers, elaborate showdowns, and action choreographed like a nightclub dance, and morphing into more serious (and far more violent) gangland yakuza thrillers. Branded to Kill is more energetic, more eccentric, and finally more fun than those brutal seventies films, a blast of crime movie delirium that embraces the pulp conventions with glee.

Black and white, in Japanese with English subtitles

Add to My List on Criterion Channel

It’s part of the “Directed by Seijun Suzuki” collection

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Branded to Kill (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Branded to Kill (The Criterion Collection) [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
Branded to Kill (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD release features an archival video interview with Suzuki from 1997 and interviews with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu conducted for this release, plus a booklet with an essay by Tony Rayns.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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