Pistol Opera

A review

Seijun Suzuki’s far more famous compatriots Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu were dying out and Akira Kurosawa was winding down his most fertile period with classics like Yojimbo and High and Low when Suzuki came on the scene. Before him, primo Japanese cinema was a Rolls Royce. After him, it was a ’68 Camaro Z28, and it would never be the same again. He did for B-genre pics in Japan what Sam Fuller and Russ Meyer had in the U.S. – invigorate them with a sense of never-before-seen rambunctious absurdity. Suzuki, with the playfulness and audacity of an early Jean-Luc Godard, paved the way for the likes of the even more exploitation-minded Koji Wakamatsu (Go, Go Second Time Virgin) and Shunya Ito (Female Convict Scorpion – Jailhouse 41), not to mention Jim Jarmusch and even later, Takashi Miike. In the late 50s through the mid-60s, Suzuki was making three to five movies a year with titles like Nude Girl with a Gun (alas, there is no nudity in that one), Young Breasts, and High-Teen Yakuza. He only really hit his stride though with 1963’s Detective Bureau 23: Go to Hell Bastards and Youth of the Beast, which matched him with plastic-surgery-altered chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido. Shishido would become Toshiro Mifune to Suzuki’s Kurosawa. Their collaborations culminated first with the dazzling Tokyo Drifter in 1966, then their masterpiece, Branded to Kill, in 1967. The latter was a movie so brilliantly bizarre, it led Suzuki’s studio, Nikkatsu Corp., to tear up his contract. Afterwards, the once immensely prolific Suzuki was blacklisted for suing his company and could only find the intermittent project and even those slowly dwindled out.

After a decade of near inactivity, Suzuki has returned with Pistol Opera, and it shows that Suzuki has lost none of his imagination and, well, his insanity. Pistol Opera (which is more aptly the title of a John Woo movie) can be considered a loose remake of Branded to Kill or perhaps a sequel. Either way, Shisido’s assassin has been substituted with a beautiful hit-woman named Miyuki Minazuki, whose nickname is “Stray Cat.” Cat is played by Makiko Esumi, best known in the States for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Mabarosi, and the two roles couldn’t be more different. In Pistol, she’s fierce, elegant, calculating. In Maborosi, she’s mousy, quiet, folded into herself. Sporting about as many vibrant kimonos as Maggie Cheung had cheongsams in In the Mood for Love, Esumi’s visage lights up the screen.

Pistol Opera shows that Suzuki has lost none of his imagination and, well, his insanity.

As in Branded to Kill, her assassin is ranked #3 in the guild behind #1 Hundred Eyes and #2 Useless Man. From inside a swimming pool, Cat completes an assignment using her sniper skills on a politician’s wife in mid-dive. Suzuki depicts this with a single iconic image, Cat’s arm rising from beneath the water like the Lady of the Lake, her sword replaced with a firing pistol. But right after, Cat finds herself being pursued by the crippled 4th-ranked hitman called Teacher. Cat dashes across a pier followed by the huffing-and-puffing wheelchair-bound, green jumpsuit-clad Teacher while a cute, young teen wearing rainbow colors and holding a lantern wanders around in the periphery. It’s as delightfully absurd and playful as movies get. The young girl turns out to be named Sayoko (Yeong-he-Han), and she wants Cat to teach her how to be an assassin. As Pistol Opera progresses, Cat faces other opponents like Painless Surgeon (Jan Woudstra), a psychotic American really into Japanese theater, and Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase), a masterful killer who keeps having to use a nose spray. Eventually Cat encounters the mysterious Hundred Eyes in a hall of mirrors-like setup with half-naked men writhing about. However, by this point the movie has become so surreal and obtuse, it is nearly incomprehensible, at least on a single viewing.

Still, Pistol Opera is nothing if not some kind of unique experience, even if it makes no sense. It burns images into the brain - Cat masturbating before a gun, Sayoko doing a dance to “Humpty Dumpty,” Cat exploring a skyscraper rooftop with all of Tokyo hovering below, guild agent Uekyo in her white lace and face-hiding maroon scarf, and Cat, always Cat, with her pistol, striking poses sexier than anything James Bond could ever muster. Suzuki’s discarded his customary wide screen look for a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, but his visual composition has lost none of its deliriousness. Every frame screams his vividly colorful style and indulgent provocation. Underneath the style though, as is usual for a Suzuki film, is a world where one takes love and tenderness wherever one can and trust is the rarest of commodities.

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