Monday, December 12, 2011

Branded to Kill / Tokyo Drifter

I believe these hit stores tomorrow, so now seems like a good time for a process post on these two Seijun Suzuki classics!

The backstory of these films is that Suzuki was working as a “director for hire” for Nikkatsu in the ‘60s, cranking out genre picture after genre picture, getting progressively more and more stylized and “out there,” until culminating with his masterpiece, Branded to Kill, which was so shocking to the suits at Nikkatsu that he got fired and subsequently blacklisted. I had been told that before watching the films and thought, “oh, those provincial businessmen! How shocking can it be?” But I think you’ll agree after watching it, that if you were expecting a simple noir picture and got that, you’d be pretty shocked, too.

Tokyo Drifter is the best (or one of the best, at least) of Suzuki’s genre pictures: a noir story executed in the most stylish way possible. Branded to Kill, by contrast, takes the bare bones of a genre film and builds something completely new and different. Both totally fantastic films, but Branded in particular is in a class all its own. HIGHLY recommended if you haven't seen it before.

In our previous editions (before my time) we had treated them very much as a matched pair, but this time around we wanted to emphasize the differences. We toyed with the idea of giving the two projects to two different designers, but ultimately decided that they should go to the same designer, more to avoid unintentional overlap than anything else.

(We actually first went to an outside designer, who did some fine work that unfortunately just didn't click with how we were hoping to present the films. So we then brought them in house and the project fell to me to design. If that previous designer would like to share his own comps, he's more than welcome to, I just didn't want to presume on his behalf.)

So, taking the films separately, starting with Tokyo Drifter: this one doesn't need to be too overly deep. The movie is slick and just plain cool, so that’s really the main thing we wanted to get across in the design. The way the film uses color and composition is certainly bold and striking, and we definitely wanted to capture something of that feel. There’s also something interesting about the way it encorporates city signage and advertisting (that hair dryer!). Producer Jason Altman really loved the scene early in the film where star Tetsuya Watari is spotlighted against a black background in his bright yellow suit, so we soon narrowed in on that scene and it really became a question of how best to execute it:

The first one was a early favorite, and Bob's your uncle.

For Branded to Kill, we came up with the idea of starting with a base of something relatively straightforward: the kind of thing that could be the cover to the film Nikkatsu might have imagined they were getting, simple genre stuff. Then we take that image and violate it with some seemingly incongruous element, probably the butterflies in the film. Some kind of strong transgressive action in what would otherwise be a very simple cover.

The butterflies are a perfect encapsulation of this idea, because their function in the plot (a butterfly--representing Joe Shishito's growing obsession with the mysterious woman--lands on the barrel of his rifle, upsetting his aim), mirrors their function formally (the butterfly motif keeps recurring, getting more and more abstracted and disruptive), which in turn mirrors what Suzuki is achieving with this film: the ultimate triumph of style over "substance," his own vision as a filmmaker making the otherwise cookie-cutter noir plot almost irrelevant. I was VERY pleased with this idea… I just needed to find a way to execute it!

My first attempt was pretty close, though I probably let myself get carried away with the patterning and such… the rain, in particular, makes the whole thing look a bit like Eurythmics album cover…

I had the idea of including Japanese type on the "underlayer" to suggest a complete Japanese poster that was then being "violated" by the butterfly… but the overall effect was maybe a bit too simple:

A few more variations on those themes…

…but the choice was obviously between the first two. The first was definitely my favorite, but was seen as a bit too "out there," so I tried some tweaks:

Thankfully, everyone agreed those were too tame, and after a little more tweaking, wound up here:

Which I was thrilled with! Definitely my favorite cover (of mine) in a while!


Calvin V said...

These two covers (especially the Tokyo Drifter one) were some of my favorite criterion covers of all time. I've been checking your blog for awhile hoping you might do a post on it, so I was really happy to find this today.
Great job!

Stephen Thor said...

I'm with Calvin V. -- really like the "Tokyo Drifter" design. As always, well done!

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