Since November 2021, physical media boutique distributor The Criterion Collection has included at least one in 4K UHD in their monthly new releases. These might be first-time additions to their collection (Terry Gilliam’s The Adventure of Baron Munchausen) or remasters of prior releases (George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead). In the case of the former, cinephiles are offered a collection of new and old materials to expand on the film they love, while the latter is often just a means of providing fans of a film the latest physical media format to enjoy it in. Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill is the latest Criterion release to fall into the latter, an upgrade on both the 1998 laserdisc release (the original Spine #38) and the 2011 Blu-ray re-release. Including all the materials of the prior releases, fans of Suzuki’s darkly comic yakuza story can get the best audio/video version Criterion’s released to date.
Ranked No. 3 in the Japanese underworld, hitman Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is good at what he does, thanks in part to following two rules: avoid alcohol and womanizing. The soda-ordering married man easily accomplishes this, enabling him to remain level-headed whether protecting a client from assassination or targeting others for their own. But when a job goes wrong and he finds himself on the receiving end of a contract, everything starts to unravel in unexpected ways.
Because this is a re-release of a restoration, let’s be clear that everything on the previously available Blu-ray release is included on the Blu-ray for this new one. In fact, the 4K UHD disc contains none of the bonus materials, requiring owners to utilize the Blu-ray to access the three interviews and trailer. Even the essay included with the liner notes from notable filmmaker, critic, and essayist Tony Rayans is the same from 2011. There appears to be a difference in the artwork, this time from Joe Eric Skillman, but it’s difficult to confirm presently if the DVD art that differs is the same as the 2011 Blu-ray, though it is confirmed that the found DVD art is the same as the original laserdisc release.
So, if you were hoping for something new, owners of the 2011 release, all you may get is the option for a higher resolution picture and different art. Seeing as the Arrow Video 2014 Blu-ray/DVD set is currently out of print (with its own release-specific bonus materials), the current Criterion edition may be the only way to currently own the film with these bonus features in this format.
For those new to the film, the liner notes indicate that Branded is presented in the original 2.39:1 aspect ratio and that the 4K restoration was completed using a 35 mm original camera negative via Nikkatsu Corporation and the Japan Foundation. This information is repeated at the start of the 4K disc, for those who either missed it in the liner notes or watch without the notes being available. There’s no mention of how the audio is treated, so the presumption is the uncompressed monaural soundtrack was not addressed or restored in any way. That stated, watching the 4K disc, the audio is clean and the dialogue crisp. In concert with the sharper, most distinct in-frame lines courtesy of the restoration, Branded to Kill maintains the feel of its original 1967 creation while enhancing the visual elements. There’s still grain from shooting on film, sure, but the blacks are more striking (aiding in Hanada’s rising tension as No. 1 (Koji Nanbara) starts in on No. 3’s psychological torment before seeking the kill) and the greys less radiant, allowing for a cleaner look overall. I did run into an issue roughly 30 minutes into the film where the disc started to visibly glitch, skipping frames and visible artifacting that are not intentional having checked the Blu-ray, but that appears to be an issue with my player not the disc itself. Though home-viewing audiences aren’t likely to notice the difference in 4K UHD versus Blu-ray, the discerning viewer can’t ignore the clarity and cleanness on display, making the 4K UHD edition the preferred version to watch of the two.
In terms of yakuza pictures, Branded is a bit of a wild one, infusing each gunfight or assassination with flair and intelligence that’s in-line with modern action flicks. The execution of writer Hachiro Guryu’s concepts make one aware of the influence still being felt today in works from directors like John Woo (Hard Boiled) or even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) as we witness Hanada use his smarts to take down one target and brutal precision to dispense with another. It’s partially what makes the psychological combat with No.1 so thrilling (and hilarious), that it all comes down to a chess match between killers whose ranks imply a level playing field. Fantastically, the psychological torment does possess a comic bend as No.1 weaponizes the code of conduct held by the yakuza in order to completely screw with Hanada. It’s comic to us that No.1 calmly and shrewdly manipulates and maneuvers Hanada while totally upending the psychology of Hanada in the process. I won’t ruin how the film ends because this is a picture with surprising layers that deserve to be explored as fresh as possible, but I think there’s a potential warning here about the concept of playing with one’s food before eating it.
As has been the case with prior 4K UHD Criterion reviews, the final product can easily be recommended for fans of the film, yakuza cinema aficionados. or cinephiles in general looking to expand their knowledge base. It’s got enough on-disc materials to expand the initial cinematic experience and an improved clarity of picture compared to the Blu-ray. It’d be nice if this edition had something new, either in written or visual essay form, in order to entice it further, especially since the film has been given several physical renditions over the years; though this would likely benefit those who’re fans already or who already own the prior Criterion editions. For newer viewers, between the lovely art design on the packaging, Rayns’s essay, and the materials, there’s little to complain about. So really, the decision to snag this or not comes down to whether you already own this and whether the 4K UHD format upgrade is worth it to you.
Branded to Kill Special Features:
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- One 4K UHD disc of the film and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
- Interviews with director Seijun Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu
- Interview with Suzuki from 1997
- Interview with actor Joe Shishido
- PLUS: An essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns
- Cover by Eric Skillman
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD from The Criterion Collection May 9th, 2023.
Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews
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