During an interview feature on the new Criterion Blu-ray of 1966’s Tokyo Drifter, assistant director Masami Kuzuu discusses some of his favorite visual motifs in the film, and debates their possible symbolic significance. The interview then cuts to Seijun Suzuki, director of Drifter, 1967’s Branded To Kill, and a number of other fever-dream confections. Suzuki dismisses the idea of symbolism entirely. What’s important to him, he says, is that the films are “interesting.” Any artistic statements of intent should be taken with a healthy amount of salt, especially coming from the elusively impressionistic Suzuki, but as an explanation for the lasting appeal of his work, the director’s words make a lot of sense. Whatever importance the viewer attaches to the bright colors and pop musings of Tokyo Drifter, or the manic cuts and dead butterflies of Branded To Kill, the undeniable fact remains: These are interesting movies.
With Tokyo Drifter, that interest largely stems from Suzuki’s use of the color palette. Blank-faced Tetsuya Watari stars as the titular wanderer, a gifted yakuza enforcer trying to stay true to his own idea of honor. The film traffics in a lot of familiar crime movie archetypes: the pretty girl kept on the sidelines; the father-son relationship between Watari and Ryuji Kita, his trying-to-go-straight boss; and all the complicated lines of loyalty and betrayal that come into play when a rival gang tries to muscle in on Kita’s turf. The story is engaging enough, and Watari makes for an appropriately implacable (but still soulful) lead, but what sets the film apart from countless others telling a similar tale are the lengths Suzuki goes to in order to make each scene a feast for the eyes. Violent reds, purples, greens, and blues paint the screen, and the editing forgoes traditional cinematic logic in favor of impressionistic cuts and a jagged, jazzy rhythm. Through it all, Suzuki walks a knife-edge of ironic sincerity, poking at yakuza clichés in an attempt to reveal some larger, wordless truth.
If Tokyo Drifter plays games with a traditional script, Branded To Kill nearly rips that script to shreds, as Suzuki’s playfulness takes on a more rabid, darker edge. Which isn’t to say that the film is grim; the tale of Jo Shishido’s doomed attempts to rise to the top of Tokyo’s ranked killer list is violent, thrilling, and frequently hilarious. Where Suzuki doodled in the margins of Tokyo Drifter's largely conventional plot, here those doodles become the film’s driving focus. Shishido’s surgically enhanced cheekbones make him look like a psychotic chipmunk; the hardened killer depends on the smell of boiling rice to awaken his libido; and the femme fatale has an apartment full of pinned butterflies. Stripping away the neon rainbow visuals for a stark (though occasionally lush) black and white, Suzuki charts Shishido’s descent from cold-blooded killer to near lunatic with a gleeful intimacy. The editing often forgoes linear structure, although never to the point of obscurity, and action setpieces feature gunmen firing into shared spaces without any clear sense of who’s standing where. Not that it matters. The logic here is all internal, the filmmaking based more off the sizzle of nerve-endings and madness. Branded To Kill repeatedly mocks the tropes it supposedly serves, pointing out the hollowness of Shishido’s quest for supremacy and delivering a seemingly tragic finale with the timing and verve of a Marx Brothers gag.
Suzuki was fired from Nikkatsu Studios after making Branded To Kill, and his ensuing court battles with the studio essentially blacklisted him from feature directing for the next 10 years. Which is a shame, but what has helped both these films stand the test of time is that there’s little bitterness or rancor in them, for all their death and chaos and gloom. Both films work because of the irrepressible joy of craft that pulses out of every tableau, and at times, it’s hard not to burst out laughing at Suzuki’s audacity. These are movies made by a director who never stopped being interested.
Key features: New transfers for both films, and new interviews with Suzuki and Kuzuu; Branded To Kill has a new interview with Shishido; and both discs have earlier interview segments and trailers.