The studio was unhappy with the original script and called in Suzuki to rewrite and direct it at the last minute. Suzuki came up with many of his ideas the night before or on the set while filming, and welcomed ideas from his collaborators. He gave the film a satirical, anarchic and visually eclectic bent which the studio had previously warned him away from. After its release Suzuki was fired for making "movies that make no sense and no money". Suzuki successfully sued Nikkatsu with support from student groups, like-minded filmmakers and the general public and caused a major controversy through the Japanese film industry. Suzuki was blacklisted and did not make another feature film for 10 years but became a counterculture hero.
The film drew a strong following which expanded overseas in the 1980s and has established itself as a cult classic. Film critics and enthusiasts now regard it as an absurdist masterpiece. It has been cited as an influence by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, Chan-wook Park and Quentin Tarantino. Thirty-four years after Branded to Kill, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera (2001) with Nikkatsu, a loose sequel to the former. The company has also hosted two major retrospectives spotlighting his career.
Yabuhara hires Hanada to kill four men, the first three being a customs officer, an ocularist and a jewellery dealer. Hanada snipes the first from behind a billboard's animatronic cigarette lighter, shoots the second from a basement up through a pipe drain when the latter leans over the sink and, ordered to finish quickly, blasts his way into the third's office and escapes on an advertising balloon. Misako then appears at his door and offers him a nearly impossible contract to kill a foreigner, which he cannot refuse having just been told the plan. During the job a butterfly lands on the barrel of his rifle causing him to miss his target and kill an innocent bystander. Misako tells him that he will now lose his rank and be killed. Hanada makes plans to leave the country but is shot by his wife who then sets fire to their apartment and flees. His belt buckle, however, stopped the bullet and he escapes the building. He finds Misako and they go to her apartment. After alternating failed attempts by him to seduce her and them to kill each other she succumbs to his advances when he promises to kill her. Afterwards, he finds he cannot as he has fallen in love with her. In a state of confusion he wanders the streets and passes out on the side of the road. The next day he finds his wife at Yabuhara's club. She tries to seduce him, then fakes hysteria and tells him Yabuhara paid her to kill him and that the three men he had killed had stolen from Yabuhara's diamond smuggling operation and the foreigner was an investigator sent by the supplier. Unmoved, Hanada kills her, gets drunk and waits for Yabuhara to return. Yabuhara arrives already dead with a bullet hole through the centre of his forehead.
Hanada returns to Misako's apartment where a film projector has been set up. It depicts Misako bound and tortured, then his former client who directs him to a breakwater the following day where he will be killed. Hanada submits to the demand but kills the killers instead. The former client arrives and announces himself as the legendary Number One Killer. He says he will kill Hanada but, in thanks for the work he has done, is only giving a warning at present. Hanada holes up in Misako's apartment and Number One begins an extended siege, taunting Hanada with threatening phone calls and forbidding him to leave the apartment. Eventually, Number One moves in with the now exhausted and inebriated Hanada under the pretext that he is deciding how to kill him. They agree to a temporary truce and set times to eat, sleep and, later, to link arms everywhere they go. Number One suggests they eat out one day and then disappears during the meal. At the apartment, Hanada finds a note and another film from Number One stating he will be waiting at a gymnasium with Misako. Hanada waits at the gymnasium but Number One does not show. As a bedraggled Hanada rises to leave, a tape recorder switches on explaining, "This is the way Number One works", he exhausts you and then kills you. Hanada puts a headband across his forehead and climbs into a boxing ring. Number One appears and shoots him. The headband stops the bullet and Hanada returns fire. Number One slumps to the ground but manages to shoot him a few times before dying. Hanada leaps and staggers around the ring declaring himself the new Number One. Misako enters the arena and, crazed, he instinctively shoots her dead then falls from the ring.
Suzuki did not use storyboards and disliked pre-planning. He preferred to come up with ideas either the night before or on the set as he felt that the only person who should know what is going to happen is the director. He also felt that it was sudden inspiration that made the picture. An example is the addition of the Number Three Killer's rice-sniffing habit. Suzuki explained that he wanted to present a quintessentially "Japanese" killer, "If he were Italian, he'd get turned on by macaroni, right?" Suzuki has commended Shishido on his similar drive to make the action scenes as physical and interesting as possible. In directing his actors, Suzuki let them play their roles as they saw fit and only intervened when they went "off track". For nude scenes the actors wore maebari, or adhesive strips, over their genitals in accordance with censorship practices. The film was edited in one day, a task made easy by Suzuki's method of shooting only the necessary footage. He had picked up the habit during his years working as an assistant director for Shochiku when film stock remained sparse after the war.
Genre conventions are satirized and mocked throughout the film. In American noirs, heroes, or anti-heroes, typically strive to be the best in their field. Here the process was formalized into a rankings system obsessed over by its players. The femme fatale—a noir staple—Misako, does not simply entice the protagonist and bring the threat of death but obsesses him and is obsessed with all things death herself. She tries to kill him, wants to kill herself and surrounds herself with dead things. Hanada's libido is as present as that of the protagonists of similar films of the period, such as James Bond, though perversely exaggerated. Reviewer Rumsey Taylor likened Hanada's boiled rice sniffing fetish to Bond's "shaken, not stirred" martini order. The film also deviates from the opening killer-for-hire scenario to touch on such varied subgenres as psychosexual romance, American Gothic thriller and Odd Couple slapstick.
The film industry is a subject of satire as well. For example, Japanese censorship often involved masking prohibited sections of the screen. Here Suzuki preemptively masked his own compositions but animated them and incorporated them into the film's design. In the story, after Hanada finds he is unable to kill Misako he wanders the streets in a state of confusion. The screen is obscured by animated images with accompanying sounds associated to her. The effects contributed to the eclectic visual and sound design while signifying his obsessive love. Author Stephen Teo proposed that the antagonistic relationship between Hanada and Number One may have been analogous of Suzuki's relationship with studio president Kyusaku Hori. He compared Hanada's antagonizers to those who had been pressuring Suzuki to rein in his style over the previous two years. Teo cited Number One's sleeping with his eyes open and urinating where he sits, which the character explains as techniques one must master to become a "top professional."
The film was shot in black and white Nikkatsuscope (synonymous with CinemaScope at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio). Due to the wide frame, moving a character forward did not produce the dynamic effect Suzuki desired. Instead, he relied on spotlighting and chiaroscuro imagery to create excitement and suspense. Conventional framing and film grammar were disregarded in favour of spontaneous inspiration. In editing, Suzuki frequently abandoned continuity, favouring abstract jumps in time and space as he found it made the film more interesting. Critic David Chute suggested that Suzuki's stylistics had intensified—in seeming congruence with the studio's demands that he conform:
Branded to Kill was released to Japanese theatres on June 15, 1967. The film was popularly received, especially among college students, but did not return a major audience. Nikkatsu Studios had been criticized for catering to rebellious youth audiences, a specialty of contract director Seijun Suzuki, whose films had grown increasingly anarchic through the 1960s. This had earned him a large following but it had also drawn the ire of studio head Kyusaku Hori. On April 25, 1968, Suzuki received a telephone call from a company secretary informing him that he would not be receiving his salary that month. Two of Suzuki's friends met with Hori the next day and were told, "Suzuki's films were incomprehensible, that they did not make any money and that Suzuki might as well give up his career as a director as he would not be making films for any other companies."
A student film society run by Kazuko Kawakita, the Cineclub Study Group, was planning to include Branded to Kill in a retrospective honouring Suzuki's works but Hori refused them and withdrew all of his films from circulation. With support from the Cineclub, similar student groups, fellow filmmakers and the general public—which included the picketing of the company's Hibiya offices and the formation of the Seijun Suzuki Joint Struggle Committee—Suzuki sued Nikkatsu for wrongful dismissal. During the three-and-a-half year trial the circumstances under which the film was made and Suzuki was fired came to light. He had been made into a scapegoat for the company's dire financial straits and was meant to serve as an example on the outset of an attempted company-wide restructuring. A settlement was reached on December 24, 1971, in the amount of one million yen, a fraction of his original claim, as well as a public apology from Hori. In a separate agreement Branded to Kill and his previous film, Fighting Elegy, were donated to the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art's Film Centre. The events turned Suzuki into a legend and shook the film world. Branded to Kill, along with other of his films, played to "packed audiences who wildly applauded" at all-night revivals in and around Tokyo. However, Suzuki was blacklisted by the major studios and did not make another feature film until A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977) ten years after Branded to Kill. In the meantime, he subsisted on commercial and television work and writing books of essays.
Branded to Kill first reached international audiences in the 1980s, featuring in various film festivals and retrospectives dedicated wholly or partially to Suzuki, which was followed by home video releases in the late 1990s. It garnered a reputation as one of his most unconventional, revered Nikkatsu films and an international cult classic. It has been declared a masterpiece by the likes of film critic Chuck Stephens, writer and musician Chris D., composer John Zorn and film director Quentin Tarantino. Writer and critic Tony Rayns noted, "Suzuki mocks everything from the clichés of yakuza fiction to the conventions of Japanese censorship in this extraordinary thriller, which rivals Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai in its harsh eroticism, not to mention its visual fireworks." Modified comparisons to the films of a "gonzo Sam Fuller", or Jean-Luc Godard, assuming one "factor[s] out Godard's politics and self-consciousness", are not uncommon. In a 1992 Rolling Stone magazine article, film director Jim Jarmusch affectionately recommended it as, "Probably the strangest and most perverse 'hit man' story in cinema." Jasper Sharp of the Midnight Eye wrote, "[It] is a bloody marvellous looking film and arguably the pinnacle of the director's strikingly eclectic style."
However, the workings of the plot remain elusive to most. Sharp digressed, "[T]o be honest it isn't the most accessible of films and for those unfamiliar with Suzuki's unorthodox and seemingly disjointed style it will probably take a couple of viewings before the bare bones of the plot begin to emerge." As Zorn has put it, "plot and narrative devices take a back seat to mood, music, and the sensuality of visual images." Japanese film historian Donald Richie encapsulated the film thusly, "An inventive and ultimately anarchic take on gangster thrillers. [The] script flounders midway and Suzuki tries on the bizarre for its own sake." David Chute conceded that in labeling the film incomprehensible, "[i]f you consider the movie soberly, it's hard to deny the bosses had a point". On a conciliatory note, Rayns commented, "Maybe the break with Nikkatsu was inevitable; it's hard to see how Suzuki could have gone further in the genre than this."
After another unrelated 10 year hiatus, Suzuki and Nikkatsu reunited for the Style to Kill retrospective, held in April, 2001, at Theatre Shinjuku in Tokyo. It featured 28 films by Suzuki, including Branded to Kill. Suzuki appeared at the gala opening with star Annu Mari. Joe Shishido appeared for a talk session at an all-night, four-film screening. An accompanying Branded to Kill visual directory was published. The following year, the Tanomi Company produced a limited edition 6 scale modeling "Joe the Ace" action figure based on Shishido's character in the film, complete with a miniature rice cooker. In 2006, Nikkatsu celebrated the 50th anniversary of Suzuki's directorial debut by hosting the Seijun Suzuki 48 Film Challenge retrospective at the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival. It showcased all of his films. He and Mari were again in attendance.
The first North American copies surfaced in the early 1990s at Kim's Video in New York in a video series titled Dark of the Sun devoted to obscure Asian cinema, assembled by John Zorn, albeit without English subtitles. The Criterion Collection released the film on laserdisc in 1998, followed by a DVD on February 23, 1999, both containing a 15-minute interview with Suzuki, poster gallery of Joe Shishido films and liner notes by Zorn. Home Vision Cinema release a VHS version on June 16, 2000. Both companies conjunctively released Tokyo Drifter in all three formats in addition to a VHS collection packaging the two films together.
In the United Kingdom, Second Sight Films released a DVD on February 25, 2002 and a VHS on March 11, 2002. Yume Pictures released a new DVD on February 26, 2007 as a part of their Suzuki collection, featuring a 36-minute interview with the director, trailer gallery and liner notes by Tony Rayns.
|1.||"Killing Blues (theme song)"||殺しのブルース （主題歌）||Koroshi no burūsu (shudaika)|
|2.||"Scotch and Hardboiled Rice pt1"||スコッチとハードボイルド米pt1||Sukocchi to hādoboirudo kome pāto wan|
|3.||"Scotch and Hardboiled Rice pt2"||スコッチとハードボイルド米pt2||Sukocchi to hādoboirudo kome pāto tsū|
|4.||"A Corpse in the Backseat"||死体バックシート||Shitai bakkushīto|
|5.||"The Hanada Bop"||ハナダ・バップ||Hanada bappu|
|6.||"Flame On pt1"||フレーム・オンpt1||Fureimu on pāto wan|
|7.||"Flame On pt2"||フレーム・オンpt2||Fureimu on pāto tsū|
|8.||"Manhater pt1"||男嫌いpt1||Otokogirai pāto wan|
|9.||"Manhater pt2"||男嫌いpt2||Otokogirai pāto tsū|
|10.||"Washing the Rice"||米を研げ||Kome o toge|
|11.||"The Devil's Job"||悪魔の仕事||Akuma no shigoto|
|12.||"Beastly Lovers"||野獣同士 （けだものどうし）||Kedamono dōshi|
|13.||"The Butterfly's Stinger pt1"||蝶の毒針pt1||Chō no dokushin pāto wan|
|14.||"The Butterfly's Stinger pt2"||蝶の毒針pt2||Chō no dokushin pāto tsū|
|15.||"Hanada's Barb pt1"||ハナダの針pt1||Hanada no hari pāto wan|
|16.||"Hanada's Barb pt2"||ハナダの針pt2||Hanada no hari pāto tsū|
|17.||"The Goodbye Look"||サヨナラの外観||Sayonara no gaikan|
|18.||"Napoleon Brandy"||ナポレオンのブランデー||Naporeon no burandē|
|19.||"Killing Blues (humming vers.)"||殺しのブルース （humming vers.）||Koroshi no burūsu (hamingu bājon)|
|20.||"Breakwater Shootout"||防波堤の撃合い||Bōhatei no uchiai|
|21.||"Killer's Bossa Nova"||殺し屋のボサノバ||Koroshiya no bosa noba|
|22.||"Something's Up"||何かが起る||Nanika ga koru|
|23.||"Beasts are as Beasts"||獣は獣のように||Kedamono wa kedamono no yō ni|
|24.||"Number One's Cry"||ナンバーワンの叫び||Nanbā Wan no sakebi|
|25.||"The Tape Recorder has the Track of Destiny"||テープレコーダーは運命の轍||Teipu rekōdā wa unmei no wadachi|
|26.|| "Killing Blues (ending theme)"|
| 殺しのブルース （エンディングテーマ）|
| Koroshi no burūsu (endingu tēma)|
|27.||"Title (karaoke vers.)"||タイトル （カラオケ vers.）||Taitoru (karaoke bājon)|
|28.||"Ending (karaoke vers.)"||エンディング （カラオケ vers.）||Endingu (karaoke bājon)|
|29.||"Title (dialogue-free vers.)"||タイトル （セリフなし vers.）||Taitoru (serifu nashi bājon)|