Film Review: Branded to Kill (1967)

Also known as: Koroshi no rakuin (Japanese)
Release Date: June 15th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Hachiro Guryu
Music by: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Hiroshi Minami

Nikkatsu, 98 Minutes

Review:

“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.” – Number 1

While I have only seen a handful of Seijun Suzuki’s motion pictures, he has become one of my favorite directors of all-time. Between this and Tokyo Drifter alone, he has proven to me that he is a true auteur with an incredible eye, an enchanting style and impeccable craftsmanship.

I thought Tokyo Drifter was one of the coolest, if not the coolest, movies I have ever seen. Branded to Kill is nearly as cool and just as perfect as Tokyo Drifter.

Suzuki has a way of taking something pretty standard like a Yakuza picture and making it much more interesting than it needs to be. But that is also why his films are so unique and incredible and not just forgettable chapters in a massive genre of Japanese cinema.

The bizarreness of this film can’t be understated. The main character is an assassin for hire and is ranked Number 3. He is in a battle with the other ranked assassins throughout the film but is specifically being targeted by Number 1. He also has a fetish that sees him obsessively inhaling the aromas of freshly boiled rice.

The movie is mostly a series of assassin battles playing out, as these killers try to outwit and survive one another. The story also has strong film-noir elements in its visual style, use of a femme fatale and constant twists and turns. It is one of the most artistically sound Japanese neo-noirs of all-time, right alongside Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.

It is easy to see where some other noteworthy auteur directors were influenced and inspired by Suzuki’s work here. The film almost has some David Lynch qualities too it, decades before Lynch really emerged and crafted his own interesting oeuvre. It would also influence John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

Interestingly enough, this film made no money upon its release and Suzuki was fired for making films that “…make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued the studio and caused a major controversy within the Japanese film industry, which resulted in him being blacklisted. He didn’t make another film for ten years and became a sort of counterculture hero. Because of this, he became recognized as an artist with something more to say than just a standard director pumping out low budget gangster movies for a paycheck.

Nowadays, this film is heralded as an incredible body of work and even has its own Criterion Collection edition.

Over thirty years later, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera for Nikkatsu, the studio he had the falling out with. That film was a loose sequel to this one.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the Beast, Pistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.

Film Review: Ichi the Killer (2001)

Also known as: Koroshiya Ichi, lit. Koroshiya 1
Release Date: September 14th, 2001 (TIFF)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Sakichi Sato
Based on: Ichi the Killer by Hideo Yamamoto
Music by: Karera Musication, Seiichi Yamamoto
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Nao Omori, Alien Sun

Omega Project, Omega Micott Inc., Emperor Multimedia Group (EMG), Media Blasters, 128 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

“Put some feeling into it, already! If you’re going to give someone pain, you’ve got to get into it!” – Kakihara

Ichi the Killer is a gruesome movie. That is probably an understatement, actually.

All I can say is that if you are going to watch it, be prepared for some serious shit. Then again, if you are familiar with the earlier works of director Takashi Miike, you probably know what to expect to a certain degree. This just takes his love of ultraviolence and brutality to a whole new level.

Visually, the film is pretty close to being a masterpiece. The use of lighting and environment paints an emotional context over the scene before a character even speaks. The art direction and cinematography are amazing. The use of color is spectacular and tonal shifts from scene to scene is brilliantly done. What we have with this film is a beautiful picture comprised of ugly and horrible things.

The story is bizarre and unsettling but what else could one expect from a film that pushes the bar so high in the gore factor. The plot also pushes that same bar and then pushes it even further. The characters are complex, their motivations are sometimes confusing but by the time the credits roll, it all adds up.

Out of the earlier works of Takashi Miike, this may be my favorite film.

Film Review: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Release Date: April 12th, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Kenji Misumi
Written by: Minoru Inuzuka
Based on: The Tale of Zatoichi by Kan Shimozawa
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura, Shigeru Amachi

Daiei Motion Picture Company, 95 Minutes

Review:

“Then why don’t you live a decent life?” – Tane, “It’s like being stuck in a bog; it’s not easy to pull yourself out once you’ve fallen in.” – Zatoichi

The Zatoichi films are movies I have heard about for a really long time thanks to having friends that are big fans of jidaigeki pictures. Unfortunately, I have never seen any of them until now. It is a pretty big injustice that I have to rectify and absolve myself of. But since I have the Criterion Channel, I now have access to twenty-five of these pictures. So why not start with the first?

This film introduces audiences to the character of Zatoichi, a blind masseur and master swordsman. He is hired by a yakuza boss named Sukegoro, who thinks that his skills will come in handy due to an oncoming war with a rival gang led by Shigezo. Shigezo responds by hiring a legendary ronin, Miki Hirate.

The film shows that Zatoichi is very humble and because of this and his low social stature, he is often times underestimated by the men around him. Zatoichi also shows that he uses his handicap to his advantage, as he turns the tables on those trying to take advantage of his blindness.

It is revealed that Zatoichi’s rival Hirate is ill with tuberculosis. This makes Hirate eager to fight Zatoichi because he feels that death at the hands of a great warrior is a better fate than dying of his illness. All the while, Hirate and Zatoichi develop a strong bond and friendship, leading up to their confrontation.

The film’s story plays out really well and it is actually quite stellar and builds up to something great, as you reach the climax. This is of course enhanced by the talent of the main actors and the quality of the film from a technical standpoint.

For 1962, this is one of the best Daiei films I have seen, up to this point. Hell, it is one of the best Daiei films, period. It is also cool seeing that Daiei had this jidaigeki franchise alongside their more famous kaiju pictures, just as their rival studio Toho had Kurosawa’s jidaigeki epics alongside their Godzilla franchise.

I’m not sure how well the quality maintains over the course of this long film series but it was off to a good start with this picture. I can assume it will go the route of James Bond or Godzilla, where quality tends to taper off but you still get an occasional high point, here and there.

Film Review: Drunken Angel (1948)

Release Date: April 27th, 1948 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Keinosuke Uegusa
Music by: Ryoichi Hattori, Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Noriko Sengoku

Toho Co. Ltd., 98 Minutes

Review:

“He tormented you, made you sick, and then deserted you like a puppy. And you still wag your tail and follow him.” – Dr. Sanada

Drunken Angel is just the seventh film directed by Akira Kurosawa. While that would be a lengthy career for any director, this was really the beginning of his long and storied journey of cinematic creation. He had 23 more films after this and many of them are considered the best ever made.

Probably the most notable thing about this picture is that it was the first of sixteen collaborations between Kurosawa and his favorite lead actor, Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa and Mifune would go on to make Seven SamuraiYojmboRashomonThrone of BloodThe Hidden FortressRed BeardSanjuro and several other films considered to be true classics. In fact, their director-actor relationship was one of the longest running and greatest in motion picture history.

This picture also teams up Kurosawa with another one of his favorite actors, Takashi Shimura. In this film, Shimura plays a cranky drunk doctor while Mifune plays a young Yakuza gangster that the doctor treats for a bullet wound. The doctor then diagnoses the young man with tuberculosis and insists that he quit his drinking and wild lifestyle, to which the youngster refuses. The two develop a shaky but strong bond and as the story progresses, their worlds collide in unforeseen ways. Mainly, the doctor’s assistant has ties to an evil and strong Yakuza boss that is moving into the area to take it back from Mifune’s character.

The film is considered to be Kurosawa’s breakout film and for good reason. It uses a lot of the themes that became synonymous with Kurosawa’s work and it utilized them better than anything before it. This was his most fine tuned picture when it came out and really opened up doors for him on an international stage. Without this picture, we might not have gotten his masterpieces.

Drunken Angel is the first post-World War II Yakuza picture but it doesn’t reflect a lot of the common tropes that would come to define that genre of Japanese film. In fact, Drunken Angel, in style and tone, is much more in tune with the American film noir pictures of its era. It also shows an American influence on the Japanese culture after the war, especially in regards to the youth culture through their hair styles, style of dress and the blazing jazz performance in the middle of the movie.

Akira Kurosawa made a damn fine picture for 1948. His work also helped to put Toho on the map before they really started hitting it big with the Godzilla pictures that would start the following decade. For a film that is nearly seventy years-old, it is still effective and hits the right notes.

Film Review: Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Release Date: April 10th, 1966 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Yasunori Kawauchi
Music by: Hajime Kaburagi
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

Nikkatsu, 83 Minutes

Review:

“A drifter needs no woman.” – Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo

I never want to oversell a movie with a bold statement but on a rare occasion, I have to make such a statement. In the case of Tokyo Drifter, this may be the coolest movie I have ever seen.

The film is highly stylized and it starts with a sort of Wizard of Oz vibe, where it is presented in black and white but then opens up to vivid and surreal color. This was done to show a transition from the older Japanese culture into the more colorful modern culture of the time. This was a reflection of cultural shifts in Japan after it hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics.

From a style standpoint, Tokyo Drifter is a mixture of several genres of film. Visually, it is very avant-garde and has an intense colorful array that also utilizes shadows and contrasts similar to the Italian giallo style, which was just starting up around the time this film was made. It could also be compared to the neo-noir films of the late 1970s and early 1980s; The American Friend and Blood Simple. immediately come to mind.

Tokyo Drifter also brings things full circle for Japanese cinema. While a lot of westerns were channeling the work of Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki channeled the western genre in this Yakuza picture. Tetsu, the main character would whistle and sing like cowboy heroes as he walks on foot from battle-to-battle. Also, there is a big brawl in a saloon. Granted, it is an incredibly stylized modern parody of an old western saloon. Everyone in the bar joins the fight however and the scene is reminiscent of a saloon brawl from any western ever made.

While this is a Yakuza film, it parodies some of the genres tropes in an effort to show the other side of it. For instance, it plays up the aspect of loyalty but it shows that blind loyalty can have really bad consequences. In this film, Tetsu shows unquestioned loyalty to his former boss Kurata, only to be betrayed. The film conveys how power can be abused against its loyal followers.

Tapping into the Yakuza film trope of corporate corruption, the film also parodies this idea, as it shows how the main character is essentially an expendable part in the bigger picture, in this case the corporation being the Yakuza itself.

Tokyo Drifter also looks at the effects of conformity in Japanese culture in general but with most of its attention on the role it plays in the Yakuza lifestyle. It also analyzes the excess of that lifestyle.

Adding to the awesomeness and mystique of this incredible picture is the character of Tetsu, whose full name is Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo. “Hondo” most likely being a reference to the John Wayne movie and its novel by Louis L’Amour.

Tetsu is just one of the coolest antiheroes to ever grace the screen. He has swagger, he has killer moves and he can hold a tune as he walks through Japan awaiting the next Yakuza ambush. Played by Tetsuya Watari, Tetsu is like Michael Corleone mixed with the DNA of James Bond, The Man With No Name, Indiana Jones and Han Solo.

Tokyo Drifter is one of the coolest movies I have ever seen and I’ve seen thousands. Yes, I started this review with that statement but it is worth repeating. Few movies can ever put me in a true state of awe but Tokyo Drifter did just that.

You should definitely check out the Criterion Collection version of the film if you have access to it.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the BeastPistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.